Camp Residents of Penally: an interview with refugees organising inside the Home Office’s military camp

7 min read

Last week we published a profile of Clearsprings, the outsourcing company that runs two former military bases in Kent and Wales as refugee housing for the Home Office. After the report came out, residents inside the Penally camp asked us to help spread more information about their situation and struggle. The following article was written collectively by CROP members in response to a list of questions we sent them. The photos were also taken by CROP.

How did the Residents of Penally Union form?

Camp Residents of Penally (CROP) started as a WhatsApp Group among some of the asylum seekers in the camp. Then we added people from outside (“the supporters”) to the WhatsApp Group and with them began to organise voluntary work and trips outside the camp for residents. The first experiment with a trip outside and voluntary work was with the Croeso Teifi charity, and then had sanctuary day trips with County of Sanctuary Pembrokeshire (COSP ). We were then helped to write our constitution as an unincorporated organisation with a Chair, a Treasurer, a Secretary and other committee members from within the camp.

What has the union been doing?

At its first meeting CROP set organising English classes as its first priority. The classes are led by asylum seekers who were English teachers in their countries. After that we agreed that we should develop opportunities for voluntary work in the community, and day trips for residents for relaxation and friendship and to get away from the camp environment and the threatening protests. We also set up a “buddy-match” arrangement with COSP. Then we helped The Heart Organisation to identify the needs of residents for shoes and clothing which they then supplied. We also organised art classes using Zoom, with a local artist through Art-is-an-Avenue in Tenby. We then started to organise music classes – also done remotely using Zoom.

When a director from Migrant Help [a private contractor running refugee advice services for the Home Office] and one of their trustees visited the camp, we organised a meeting for the residents with them. This was done so that medical cases and other urgent issues could be raised directly with Migrant Help and, through them, passed on to the Home Office and Clearsprings Ready Homes for action. As a result of this some urgent cases were moved to proper, safer accommodation.

 

What are the conditions like in the camp?

The camp is in a poor state of repair. The facilities in the camp are all within separate stand-alone buildings. For example, the toilets and showers are in blocks separate from the living quarters; the washing machines are in another; and the TV room and dining room are within their own stand-alone buildings. This means that if residents want to use the toilet or shower, they need to leave their sleeping quarters, go outside and walk across the site to the toilet and shower blocks. Because all the facilities are in separate buildings, residents spend a lot of time outside in the elements. Not only is this unpleasant because of the bad weather, it also means that the anti-migrant protesters outside the camp gates can see you moving around the camp and can film you.

As for the sleeping spaces, there are three kinds. Some buildings are divided into four rooms with two people in each. Then as new people arrived they started to use a different type of sleeping quarters – stand-alone buildings divided into two rooms with each room housing six. When yet more men arrived, the third type of sleeping quarters were put to use. These are the “Nissen hut” arched buildings containing just one room with six people inside.

The rooms contain bunk beds. There is no wifi in the rooms and initially there were no lockers for our belongings, just a single chest of drawers. Long thin rusty metal lockers were eventually provided but the padlocks we were given would not fit them so they remained unlocked and unused. The rooms were only lockable from the inside since the office staff refused all requests for keys to lock the doors from the outside.

Penally breakfast: (un)boiled eggs

We have heard a lot of stories about the food and drink at Penally. What can you tell us about this?

Following earlier complaints passed on to Migrant Help, we were clearly told that residents are entitled to adequate portion sizes and the right to ask for additional servings. This is not happening, for example, requests for additional slices of bread are routinely refused.

As regards quality, the breakfast menu is constantly the same, boiled eggs (often uncooked) and porridge. Rice is poorly cooked (either under or over boiled) and is served swimming in water. Often the chicken pieces still have feathers attached and the other meat is extremely tough to cut or chew. It is clearly poor quality and cooked badly – though apparently the food can be cooked properly on those days when there are visits from Migrant Help or other outside organisations.

Is there any problem with drinking water?

Again, CROP has raised this with Clearsprings before and now the situation has deteriorated. There are supposed to be three operational water dispensers in the camp but, as the Administration Office is aware, they are not routinely checked and refilled. Consequently, there are times when there is no drinking water available and service users have been told to fill their bottles with water from the bathroom taps.

As for hot water – Clearsprings have removed all the kettles. They have said this is for Health and Safety reasons. The kettles were newly purchased and donated by local charities, checked upon being brought to the camp, and were safely used for at least four weeks. These kettles belong to the charities which donated them, and we have not heard if Clearsprings have returned them to the charities so they can give them to other people.

There are only two working hot water urns in the whole camp – one in the Library and one which was in one of the common rooms. The third urn, located in the dining room/canteen area has never worked. Quite often only the one in the library is working. This inadequate provision of hot water for hot drinks and removing the need to walk long distances in the inclement weather in winter was why CROP and the local charities provided kettles for the men in the camp.

How is the heating in the camp?

The heaters mounted on the walls in the sleeping quarters and communal areas often do not work. The broken heaters often do not get repaired or replaced for several days. In one case, several heaters, which were broken for more than a week, were replaced only on the day that the Migrant Help director and trustee visited for a second time. Other heaters remained unrepaired. The rooms are very cold when the heaters are not working.

In the communal areas it is also very cold. The radiators in one of the communal rooms did not work until about 12 weeks after the camp had been occupied. The doors in the communal areas are often kept open because of the amount of people in the rooms in a vague attempt to avoid Covid 19 transmission.

Do you have access to phones and internet to communicate with friends and family?

Yes, those of us with phones can. Those without are now obtaining them via Care4Calais and the British Red Cross. Wifi only exists at two points in the camp, in the TV-social rooms. There is nowhere for private calls or internet-calls using wifi, e.g., to speak to solicitors or family.

How is the situation with social distancing and corona?

None of us were asked to self-isolate before being moved from the hotels we were in; nor did we undergo any type of mental or physical health assessment before we were moved; and nor were we given a Covid-19 test. We have no idea how the Home Office or Clearsprings made sure that there was no risk of Covid being brought into the camp. Very little was done to manage the risk of Covid. Hand sanitiser and soap dispensers are often either empty or not working. Outside the canteen, there is one dispenser which is often left empty, including for three days on one occasion.

Mask wearing is only enforced within the dining area. There is no enforcement to wear a mask in any other part of the camp, including in the communal TV rooms. Because of this, many men do not wear masks. Masks are only available on request.

Social distancing is very difficult. During protests, some men would interact with protesters at the camp gates with neither group wearing masks. Many of us have to share sleeping quarters with five other people with totally inadequate isolation measures, short pieces of ply would fixed to the bunk beds and sheets which we put up ourselves. We have been provided with cloths to wash plates and cutlery which are shared between large numbers of people.

There were signs on the floor reminding people to socially distance, but these rubbed off after a day and were not replaced. The only Covid safety measure in evidence at all is the taking of temperatures of residents as they leave and visitors as they enter the camp.

How do the staff that run the camp behave towards you?

CROP, not for the first time, has reported to Clearsprings that some of the security staff have demanded a resident tell them his destination and show identification when he was outside the gates meeting a charity worker. Inside the camp, there was a noticeable increase in aggression from the security staff at least since their own recent protest about unpaid wages.

The kitchen serving staff make no allowance for people’s lack of English and there are no signs in different languages to help people obtain the right food options. Their attitude is simply to demand “What do you want?”, and then shout “Next”. This is neither respectful nor necessary (let alone appropriate) when dealing with people who have queued outside in the cold and rain and who do not have English as a first or even second language. This antagonistic behaviour adds to the widespread frustration building in the camp.

Do you feel safe at the camp?

Not particularly. It is very unpleasant trying to get back in to the camp when there are protesters outside, especially when the Police are not controlling them. Sometimes there have been problems between the security guards and some of the men, which makes the camp feel unsafe.

The protesters shout and set off fireworks. It is terrifying as it sounds like gunfire. They take photographs and videos of the men and these have been posted on YouTube. We are very worried about images being uploaded onto the internet as it might put families at risk back in the countries we have left.

How is healthcare at the camp?

Almost non-existent. Initially, the Clearsprings housing manager would take temperatures and blood pressure readings if needed. I think that a nurse visited on two days, and a doctor visited once. The medical professionals would try to arrange telephone interpretation for the men who had appointments with them. However, the signal would often be very poor and on a number of occasions other asylum seekers would have to interpret for the men at their appointments.

There remains considerable confusion about how to obtain medical treatment or get an appointment to see a medical professional.

What do you know about the companies running the different services (food, healthcare, etc) in the camp?

Clearsprings Ready Homes has the contract for the provision of this and the Napier Camp [in Kent]. But they subcontract nearly everything to do with the running of the camps (and the hotels we were in before) to another company called NACCS. The Security staff are provided by another sub-contractor.

Are there any people being deported from the camp?

We do not know about this, but we have heard of one member who was moved to Brook House Detention Centre at Gatwick.

Has the Union faced any problems from those running the camp?

CROP has not been prevented from forming by Clearsprings Ready Homes or the sub contractors on the site and they agreed to provide the classroom building for our use for the English, Art and Music classes we now run. However, they have not been responsive to our requests for improvements to the food, heating and cleaning issues we have raised with them since day one of the organisation.

What are the aims of the Union, what do you hope to achieve? And what message do you have for people who want to support your struggle?

The camp at Penally is not suitable for the use it is being put to now. The fact that it is clearly a military camp, with barbed wire and high fences (and even a shooting target in the shape of a man when we first arrived!) only adds further mental anguish and trauma to those who have suffered torture and other ill-treatment in military and intelligence service camps in the countries they have fled. We need help from people in writing to their MPs and the Senedd [the Welsh Parliament], supporting our view that the camp needs to be closed and proper accommodation provided.

We cannot believe that the UK government has fallen to the level of using such dreadful “camps” for asylum seekers.

Supporting the organisations which have been central to helping CROP would also be very much appreciated.