Published: 06:00, 15 July 2021
A comment made earlier this year suggested people living close to Napier Barracks - which is being used to accommodate asylum seekers - have been left 'petrified' over the arrangement.
This came from a member of the district council, who added that he felt sorry for residents living in Sandgate, Folkestone - close to where the disused Army barracks are.
Cllr David Wimble (Ind) said during a meeting in February: "This holding centre was forced on the district. We weren't consulted.
"I feel so sorry for the residents of Sandgate, some of who are literally petrified. Up until recently they were walking around the town in large groups.
"The Home Office forced it on us and they don't seem to be listening to us when we say it is unsuitable."
His comments have been echoed across social media by people who are also unhappy that Napier Barracks, part of the Shorncliffe Army Camp, was transformed by the Home Office into accommodation for single, adult men seeking asylum in the UK last September.
Since then, the camp has been rife with issues, including protests, a fire, Covid-19 outbreaks and hunger strikes, with charities, MPs and even the asylum seekers themselves calling for the centre to close.
KentOnline has carried numerous stories about the situation at Napier Barracks, which often provoke mixed reaction on Facebook.
Now, 10 months later, we wanted to speak to some of those who live near the barracks, to see how they really feel after hundreds of people moved into their neighbourhood.
Cheriton resident Michelle Barbour, 57, said she had no concerns about the new neighbours when she first heard about the arrangement, but instead hoped the community would welcome them.
Asked if she ever felt scared, she said no.
Michelle, who lives about a mile from the barracks, helped organise a clothes drive when the men first moved in.
She said: "I started to see some of the men walking about in October. It was cold and we thought it was only going to get colder. "Some of them were only wearing flip flops, and had no coats.
"I wanted to help so we started collecting donations.
"Everyone in the community was so generous. I found it incredibly moving actually.
"People were dropping stuff off on our door steps. They really wanted to help.
"The men were incredibly grateful. We managed to get shoes for everyone who needed them."
Michelle has formed friendships with some of the guests at Napier, teaching some of them English and going for dog walks.
She has witnessed some negative remarks on social media however.
And she says she can understand some people's feelings to an extent: "I do understand how some people feel.
"Some people in the community would say the men there are getting three meals a day and have shelter over their heads, and that they don't deserve more.
"But these are people who have been traumatised. They have fled their countries, some fearing they would be killed otherwise, and perhaps left their families behind.
"Some men are suffering from depression and post traumatic stress disorder. And then they get abuse for coming here.
"And I don't believe refugees are a special group - they are just one disadvantaged group. I also want to support the homeless, or anyone who needs help.
"There isn't a limit to kindness; I don't have a limit to who I feel sympathy for."
Asked whether the residents at Napier have had an impact on the community, Michelle said: "For a start they are not given money, so they can't spend it.
"The majority of them are just incredibly grateful to be here.
"If anything, they've had a positive impact by uniting the community in our wish to provide whatever support we can to a vulnerable group."
Asked whether enough had been done to connect the Folkestone community with the new residents, Michelle said no.
She added however that there is 'less racism' than people think, adding: "Because the people who say racist things are very loud and vocal.
"But the people who are doing the charity work and donating aren't as loud. They just get on with it.
"At the beginning some people would hang around in a van at the camp, following the men if they left. But the group racists who hung around the barracks were from miles away. They weren't locals."
Michelle blamed 'misinformation from the government' for stirring some of the hate.
They have also said that “Napier has previously housed Army personnel so it is an insult to say they are not adequate for asylum seekers".
Michelle added: "I am aware of different opinions and we're all entitled to an opinion. But the more informed we are, the more those opinions are likely to change.
"And it is quite easy to be scared of someone who looks different to you. At the beginning, it was the unknown and the numbers sounded so big - 400 men.
"So I can understand fear. And I don't blame people for being frightened. But if they came to the barracks and spoke to the men, this could change."
Jan Holben lives five minutes away from Napier in Sandgate. She said the Covid outbreak did cause her some concerns, as well as the fire in January.
Mrs Holben said: "I wouldn't say I've been impacted, no.
"About half of the people there caught Covid and that was a worry. Any incidents of a breakout that are close by, even in town, would be a worry.
"And the asylum seekers aren't prisoners of course, and they do go out. I rarely see any wearing masks.
"After the fire I saw pictures of the ruined kitchen. I was on the side of thinking you shouldn't be there if you can't appreciate a roof over your head.
"But it wasn't everyone; some of the men did look dismayed after that happened.
"I do think it isn't a suitable place for the asylum seekers. The firing range is up there and quite loud. This might be terrifying for people who have been through trauma."
Another resident, who did not want to be named, said he was expecting the site to be closed following a court ruling earlier this year which found the accommodation at Napier Barracks failed to meet a 'minimum standard'.
The resident said: "After the court decided the facilities were inappropriate for asylum seekers this was the chance for the Home Office to close the barracks as they did the one in Wales and move on.
"A win-win for asylum seekers charities staff at the barracks and local residents."
The resident added that calls for the centre to close often ignores the 'safety' of the residents. He said: "It goes on about the safety and welfare and wellbeing and needs of the asylum seekers, not of anyone in the local community?
"We do not want to catch Covid. It increased infection rates in Sandgate to the highest in England when the asylum seekers came down with Covid.
"Does any local politician or councillor care about the local communities feelings?"
Cllr Tim Prater (Lib Dem) is the ward member for area that covers the barracks on Folkestone and Hythe District Council. He is also chairman of Sandgate Parish Council.
He says Napier should never have been used to accommodate asylum seekers.
He said: "Local residents, including through the church led by vicar Bob Weldon, have supported the residents of the camp.
"However, few will defend its use.
"It was the wrong place, at the wrong time, to hold hundreds of people for any period of time.
"Many constituents came to us with huge concerns about the security of the local area when the Home Office, with pretty much no notice, announced its intention to open the camp.
"I’m pleased to say that, with some exceptions, few of those concerns have come to pass, and the people who have had by far the worst of it have been those held in a camp that should never have been opened.
"However, the area is being redeveloped, and should never have been used for this purpose. Napier Barracks should be shut fully and permanently as soon as possible."
It is not known how long Napier Barracks will remain open as accommodation for the men seeking asylum, but it is only on lease from the Ministry of Defence (MOD) until this September.
The Home Office says "no decision has been made on continuing after that".
But developer Taylor Wimpey will receive the barracks from the MOD in 2026 as part of plans to build 1,200 homes on the wider Shorncliffe Barracks site.
It has already secured outline planning permission for the housing scheme.
To read about everything that happened in the first six months of Napier being open, click here.