Published: 18:44, 25 September 2020
| Updated: 19:44, 25 September 2020
A public meeting touched upon the more human side of the asylum system, and gave residents answers to concerns about military barracks being used to house asylum seekers.
Today's virtual community meeting was set up by Folkestone and Hythe District Council to allay any worries or questions residents have about how Napier Barracks in Folkestone will be run.
And during the 80-minute long session, emphasis was put on how the people staying there are just "ordinary people", who are "law-abiding" and "vulnerable", some having fled war-torn countries.
It was attended by MP for Folkestone and Hythe Damian Collins, Home Office officials, members of Kent County Council (KCC), leader of Folkestone council Cllr David Monk, police and the managing director of Clear Springs Ready Homes, which is the firm running the temporary accommodation.
Deborah Chittenden, director of borders, immigration and citizenship system at the Home Office, explained that it was a "rapid" decision to use Napier Barracks as the Home Office is dealing with a "serious shortage" of accommodation for people seeking asylum in the country.
It comes as the Covid-19 pandemic has caused a "blockage" in the asylum system, on top of the record number of small boats arriving in the south east from France.
As a result, the Home Office turned to its partner agencies to ask for possible locations for accommodation, and the Ministry of Defence offered Napier Barracks for up to 12 months.
Ms Chittenden said it was "highly unfortunate" that there was not time to engage with the council and Mr Collins over this decision.
This was in response to criticism from the authority and MP over the lack of communication ahead of the arrangement.
Ms Chittenden said the set up will help "relieve the pressure" on the system and that it is not "intended to be forever".
She also made clear that the people staying at the barracks - who will only be adult, single men, no families - are free to leave the site as they are not being detained.
She said: "It's really important to recognise these asylum seekers are just ordinary people, like you and me.
"They are here seeking protection.
"Many have risked their lives to get here. They are not criminals, they are not being detained. "This is about providing appropriate support and accommodation as part of the process."
She also explained that the asylum seekers do not get a cash allowance, and that needs are met on site, for example three meals a day, toiletries and a bed.
She added activities are provided on site which will "reduce" their need to leave but "they are able to leave if they wish and some of them will".
Steve Lakey, managing director of Clear Springs Ready Homes, explained that there are TVs, Wifi and sports equipment at the barracks to keep people entertained while they stay there.
Information is provided in several languages, interpretors are also available, as is information on how to contact the Migrant Help charity.
Sanitiser and masks are available to the guests and security is provided on site.
Mr Lacey said people have to be on site overnight, and although there is no curfew, welfare calls will be made to people who have not returned by 10pm to check they are OK.
It was also unveiled that the men who have moved to the Napier Barracks have come from hotels in London and Luton, and all were in quarantine for two weeks.
Allison Duggal, deputy director of Public Health at KCC, explained that they are treating people in each dormitory at the barracks as a 'household', in terms of Covid-19 restrictions.
There is also a nurse on site who can help take care of any physical or mental health issues that people might be dealing with, for example PTSD.
Nick Wilkinson, prevent and channel strategic manager at KCC, said that asylum seekers are "vulnerable people" and that it can be frustrating when "derogatory and hateful comments" are posted on social media.
He said far right influencers from outside Folkestone can attempt to influence the views of the community and that these comments can be "prejudicial, bias and contain misinformation".
Ch Insp Nick Sparkes from Kent Police said they will be "intolerant of crime".
Helen Bransfield, director of asylum services at Migrant Help, said an email will be set up in time for anyone who would like to volunteer or offer their support at the barracks.
During the meeting Ms Chittenden also said that around 90 hotels across the country are currently being used to house asylum seekers, which she understands isn't the best 'value' for the taxpayer but is necessary because of a "bulge in the system".
She added that she will take "every bed I can take" at present, and will shut down the hotels and shut down the barracks when she can.
Napier Barracks will be used for 12 months maximum.
Cllr David Monk ended the meeting saying that "people in Folkestone are nice people" and "I'm sure it will work out alright in the end".