Asylum seekers’ accommodation is “unsafe” due to inadequate healthcare, while poor living conditions are exacerbating or creating mental and physical health problems, according to a new report by Doctors of the World.
The charity’s research, published on Wednesday, details the barriers to medical care and medication for asylum seekers in initial accommodation across the UK.
Evidence gathered by Doctors of the World shows that a failure to meet basic human standards in hotels and former military barracks such as Napier in Folkestone has exacerbated depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health concerns among asylum seekers.
Ara* described waking up in a cold sweat every night since he arrived at Napier. Sometimes he’s lying in a tight ball and shaking, terrified that he is back in a prison cell.
“It’s always the same: I wake up, I’m screaming, remembering,” he said. “I have bad nightmares. I need pills for sleeping but the GP said to me ‘Go to YouTube, it will tell you how you can sleep.’ I don’t have [a] phone, so how can I see that? I asked for help, but nobody will help me.”
For those who have fled torture and imprisonment, as Ara did, the detention-like conditions at Napier camp mean they relive their previous trauma, with many saying their mental health is deteriorating further.
“Others in my room [shared with 13 other men], they are waking up,” said Ara. “It’s impossible to sleep. We all need a doctor – we left the war – but there is no one to help us.”
Another asylum seeker said he had to wait more than a month for medical attention, despite reporting severe tooth pain, which stopped him eating.
“We don’t have a good nurse in the camp,” he said. “I needed immediate help – I couldn’t eat properly, there was so much pain – but they refuse to do [anything]. They said there is no dentist, it will get better on its own.”
In several instances, asylum seekers said staff were unhelpful and treated them as if they had lied about their medical conditions. Some of those identified in the report said they were unable to purchase medications, toiletries, clothing or food, while others said the food was not culturally appropriate. Of those interviewed, 43% said they had lost weight because they were unable to eat the food provided, which was not properly cooked or fresh.
Another man at Napier camp said he had experienced severe stomach pains from the food at the camp, but had not been referred to a doctor. “I’m so sick, I cannot eat. The nurse, she is never there and no one does [anything].”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We reject these claims. Napier barracks is safe and we treat the welfare of those in our care with the utmost importance and sensitivity.” The spokesperson claimed round-the-clock medical support was available.
Asylum seekers supported by the Home Office are entitled to access the NHS low-income scheme for help with health costs, including prescriptions, optometry charges and dental care.
However, accommodation providers are not required to directly support access to healthcare or register asylum seekers with a GP unless the person is in “obvious and urgent” need of medical care, such as heavy blood loss, severe chest pain, pregnancy complications or a suicide attempt.
In its report published last week, after a visit to Napier barracks in February, the all-party parliamentary group on immigration detention described conditions at Napier as “quasi-detention” and said the barracks were “fundamentally unsuitable for use as asylum accommodation”.
An earlier visit by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration found that most residents had experienced depression and a third had felt suicidal, with people at risk of self-harm placed in decrepit isolation blocks.
Despite inspections that demonstrate the unsuitability of accommodation such as Napier, the Home Office recently extended the contract to 2025. In the nationality and borders bill currently going through parliament, the Home Office described the former military barracks as a “prototype” for how reception centres may operate in the future.
Under plans by the home secretary, Priti Patel, to change the asylum system, the Home Office says it will develop more large-scale asylum accommodation in remote areas, including the former RAF airbase at Linton-on-Ouse in North Yorkshire.
Anna Miller, head of policy and advocacy at Doctors of the World, said: “Sadly, plans to develop new military-style accommodation sites is only one of the many aspects of the nationality and borders bill currently going through parliament which will cause lasting and profound harm to the health and wellbeing of people seeking sanctuary in the UK.
“We urge the government to have a full rethink of its plans to reform the asylum system and to prioritise the health and wellbeing of people seeking sanctuary in the UK.”
In addition to rejecting the claims, the Home Office said: “There is 24/7 medical support for asylum seekers at Napier barracks, including a prescribing nurse, dental care on site and access to local GP services, which includes mental health support.
“Individuals at all our immigration removal centres are brought to the attention of medical staff and, once screened, can receive clinical pathways to healthcare services depending on their needs.”
* Names have been changed and countries of origin omitted to protect asylum seekers’ identities.
- Reporting for this article was supported by a grant from the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G Buffett fund for women journalists