‘I Hate It Here’ – Our Experience At Penally Barracks

Last week, Asylum Justice visited Penally refugee camp in Tenby, West Wales, which currently houses between 150-250 asylum seekers. The camp is an old disused army barracks in Penally, West Wales, where the conditions and management have been labelled as shambolic, inhumane and dire. The camp has been the subject of intense scrutiny, including media coverage and local protests, and the far right has also tried to make the Penally camp a focus for racist mobilisations at the gates, designed to harass and intimidate the asylum seekers housed inside.

And Penally isn’t the only military barracks currently being used to house asylum seekers; the disused Napier barracks in Folkestone, Kent is also being utilised in the same way. The current government policy, of housing asylum seekers in isolated and rundown old army camps, miles away from cities and settled migrant communities, seems to be the latest addition to the ‘hostile environment’ policy, first introduced by Theresa May in 2012, when she was Home Secretary. Despite the disastrous effects of this policy, which included removing from the UK British citizens who belonged to the Windrush community, the current Home Secretary, Priti Patel, is ploughing ahead with yet further measures designed to deter people from coming to the UK to seek asylum.

It should come as no surprise that the use of these military camps follows on in the wake of the hysteria whipped up last summer in response to the (very small) number of asylum seekers who risked the dangerous channel crossing from France to reach the U.K. during that period. Government plans leaked at the time showed the government’s initial response was to consider sending asylum seekers to await the decisions on their asylum claims in remote destinations such as the Ascension Islands in the South Atlantic. There was even a serious discussion, we were told, about housing asylum seekers out on ships, or even on oilrigs, in policies echoing those of the Australian government in recent years, with their so-called  ‘offshore processing centres’.

Even after the tragic death earlier this year of Abdulfatah Hamdallah, a young Sudanese man who died at sea whilst attempting to make the channel crossing, there has been no let up in official government policy. Rather than working to create safe alternative routes for asylum seekers to reach the U.K., the government instead busied itself hatching plans which, if implemented, would jeopardise even further the safety of those attempting the channel crossing: widespread use of netting and even the deployment of wave machines in the channel, to physically prevent boats from being able to reach British shores. And we’ve even started to see criminal prosecutions of individual asylum seekers simply for ‘steering the boat’ across the Channel from France, with the government using against them legislation that was designed for use against professional people traffickers and which carries a sentence of up to 14 years if convicted.                                                       

And the latest attacks are no longer confined to refugees, either. Anyone who helps or supports asylum seekers is under attack, too, with asylum lawyers firmly in Priti Patel’s sights. In just the last few months, she has publicly condemned asylum lawyers as ‘activist lawyers’, ‘lefty lawyers’ and ‘do-gooders’, and accused them of defending the ‘indefensible’. It’s no surprise, therefore, that shortly after one of Patel’s blistering attacks on lawyers, a leading immigration solicitor in London was physically attacked at his place of work by a member of a far right organisation, who entered the solicitor’s offices yielding a large knife.

The conditions we saw at Penally are much the same as reported elsewhere. The camp is no fit place for asylum seekers, some of whom are already highly traumatised after fleeing torture and serious human right abuses back home. Many of the men housed at Penally are asylum seekers from countries with some of the worst human rights records in the world, including Iran, Sudan and Eritrea. For those individuals with a history of detention and/or torture in their home country, being confined at the camp is having a highly detrimental effect on their mental health. When spoken to by the BBC, one stated that it was the seventh “and worst” location he had been sent to during his seven months in the UK. Another noted the inability to socially distance, the size of the rooms and the generally poor conditions.

All the individuals we saw at Penally painted a very similar picture, with one client in particular leaving us with the heart wrenching words: ‘Please, help me get out. I hate it here.’ Detained and tortured for over a year before fleeing to the UK, he told us he now finds himself in conditions that remind him every day of what he thought he’d escaped from. He barely eats and gets very little sleep, due to the numbers he has to share.

Understandably, most reports about Penally have focused on the inadequacy of the accommodation there, and on its remote and isolated location, without comment about the standard of legal representation available to those housed at Penally. The latter is a growing problem, though, as there is already a shortage of legal aid asylum solicitors in Wales, and the opening of Penally has significantly increased the overall number of asylum seekers in Wales who require specialist legal advice and representation during the early stages of their asylum claim.

During the pandemic there have been additional safeguards to house destitute asylum seekers. Those who received a negative decision were allowed to remain in their accommodation and local authorities in Wales, through additional funding from the Welsh Government, have been able to provide. Inevitably, once these exceptional housing measures are withdrawn, and the Home Office’s decision making process gets back into full swing, the sector in Wales will be facing huge demand with requests for legal support and representation.

When this happens, significant asylum seekers will likely be left without representation to try to navigate their appeals in the Tribunal. Many asylum seekers also lose legal aid at that point because their solicitor deems there to be less than a 50% chance of their appeal being successful. Even without the significant rise in refusals and requests for representation, our services are already under being stretched. Local authorities in Wales already host a significant proportion of asylum seekers per head of population at present due to the highly uneven distribution of asylum seekers across the UK, as explored by the Migration Observatory.

Put simply, the landscape of legal aid and immigration representation in Wales cannot handle the consequences of Penally. But even more so, it is the asylum seekers in Penally who will be the ones that truly bear them.