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The Refugee Union Behind Barbed Wire

After being placed in the Penally barracks, refugees organised a union to fight inhumane conditions.

Their campaign forced the government to commit to closing the camp and inspired others to take up the struggle.

Priti Patel’s refugee camp experiment is finally crumbling. In March, Penally Camp in Pembrokeshire — where hundreds of asylum seekers have been held in squalid conditions since September 2020 — was closed down. The barracks, complete with razor wire-topped fences and human-shaped shooting targets, has been returned to the Ministry of Defence, and will hopefully never be used to accommodate people flee-ing wars again.

The closure follows months of pressure on the Home Office by human rights groups, local campaigners, MPs, doctors, and lawyers, who ran a high-profile campaign decrying the barracks’ prison-like conditions. Less well-known, however, is the role played by asylum seekers themselves in resisting their inhumane treatment every step of the way.

When Saleh first entered Penally Camp, he saw a target shooting sign ‘in the shape of a man’. ‘Immediately,’ he tells Tribune, ‘I realised we were in a military camp.’ As one of the first asylum seekers to be moved into Penally last September, Saleh was part of a group that was confronted by a mob of furious far-right protesters wielding placards demanding the government ‘send them back’ and declaring ‘illegal immigrants not welcome’.

It was a sign of things to come. Having fled Syria after being conscripted and rescued from one of Bashar al-Assad’s military camps by his family, Saleh never expected to find himself in such dire conditions in Britain, where he believed human rights were respected. ‘We were shocked when we arrived,’ he says. Behind the security gates, men were forced to share communal showers and dorms. Toilets were often flooded and broken, food was substandard, medical help was denied, and there was absolutely nothing for them to do.

It was out of a need to do something to address these issues, as well as the gaping holes in support and services left by the Home Office and its contractor, Clearsprings, that Saleh and a few other men formed a camp union. ‘Somebody had to speak on their behalf,’ he says. ‘Somebody had to do it — so we did it.’

After setting up a WhatsApp group to share residents’ needs with outside charities and to contact locals who had donated aid packages, Camp Residents of Penally (CROP) was born in early October. The organisation’s principal aim, as outlined in its constitution, was to ‘enable camp residents of Penally to meet their own needs and benefit the wider area.’ Alongside other asylum seekers elected as treasurer, vice-chair, and sub-group divisional leaders, Saleh was CROP’s first elected chair.

When asked what spurred him on to create something like CROP, Saleh replies: ‘It’s my nature that I can’t see this kind of unfairness and do nothing.’ For Eduardo, who was elected CROP chair when Saleh left Penally in November, helping others is how he was raised.

In his home country of El Salvador, Eduardo and his family helped children to escape violence by keeping them in school and providing economic support. Due to the country’s powerful and violent gangs, El Salvador has the highest murder rate in the world, making it the most dangerous nation outside of a conflict zone. ‘[My parents] are giving some of them a better future — not the future of being a gangster, to be killed by another guy, creating the same circle,’ he explains.

But interfering with the gang’s recruitment drive made his family a target. Eduardo was kidnapped and held for ransom — but as he puts it, ‘Miracles happen — and I think that happened in my case.’ His parents were forced to move to a different city, and he had to leave El Salvador in hot pursuit.

Amplifying Voices

CROP soon began to organise more widely. After letting themselves be known, the union successfully pressured management to open classrooms for English lessons, and for residents to be able to go on day trips organised by local charities: before the lockdown, there were four day trips a week, volunteering opportunities, art workshops, music classes, and four English lessons a day at basic and intermediate level.

The drive behind these activities was a desire to resist the demoralisation of camp life. As Eduardo tells Tribune, ‘We tried to give them something to keep [looking] forward — and to give them a reason to have hope in their hearts.’

Though these activities were a vital part of the union’s work, Saleh explains that their most important role was to ensure residents’ voices were heard. No translation services were provided in the camp, so CROP committee members with good English skills stepped in to act as the bridge between the residents and management. Together, they covered the majority of languages spoken in the camp, from Arabic to Spanish.

‘We said if you have any issue, come to a CROP member and ask them to help you, and he will be your interpreter,’ Saleh says. ‘We try to solve these issues — we’re not always successful, but at least we try.’

But complaints to staff often fell on deaf ears. This prompted CROP to demand meetings with Migrant Help, the charity inside the camp, to pass complaints directly to the Home Office. Complaining efficiently and collectively under the CROP banner meant the authorities were unable to deny knowledge of camp problems, and significant improvements followed, including repairs to the camp heating that had been left broken for weeks in the dead of winter.

As time went by, CROP took on more and more responsibilities. One role in which committee members took particular pride was helping certain vulnerable asylum seekers escape the camp. This was done through facilitating medical report appointments with charities such as the Helen Bamber Foundation. Despite government promises that no vulnerable adults would be moved to the camps, many victims of torture and trafficking were placed there — but all the vulnerability assessments overseen by the CROP committee resulted in vulnerable adults moved out of Penally.

As Majid — the CROP member assigned to facilitating these appointments — explains, many were vulnerable ‘from the very beginning’ but struggled to communicate this due to the language barrier. In the end, CROP assured that over thirty people were released. Without them, many would have remained.

The assessments also shone a light on how conditions in the barracks were exacerbating mental health problems. ‘They show that mental health deteriorates from the first day of arrival,’ Majid says. The group ensured that everyone in the camp registered with a GP, and established cultural classes like art lessons.

Hama, who was in the camp for six months, tells Tribune that day after day in the camp felt like a prison. ‘If you leave the camp, where do you go? This hill or the other hill — it doesn’t matter. Barbed wire fences and gates, all the security guards, and the shared showers and toilets — it’s something you’ve seen in pictures of prisons.’

He says that exercise and art workshops helped keep his mind busy, but adds that others were not always able to cope. ‘You’ll find someone, and maybe you’ll say hello, and suddenly you don’t see them for months. You think he has been moved. But then you see him again.’ In one instance, he found that an individual was only leaving their dark room for a few minutes a day to get food, ‘obviously showing something very wrong with their mental health.’

For Hama, a key difficulty is the lack of knowledge about how long you might be in the camp, or what the status of your asylum claim is. ‘Okay, it’s Covid,’ he concedes, ‘but someone just needs to call you.’ The sense of abandonment residents felt in the camp was palpable: Hama once called Migrant Help just to let them know he was alive and had claimed asylum here.

Camp Solidarity

Unsurprisingly, Penally is not the only military barracks in which the Home Office has been dumping asylum seekers. In September, the government also opened Napier Barracks in Kent. Napier’s pitiful conditions came to national attention in January, when a fire engulfed the site and a huge Covid-19 outbreak resulted in half of the 400 residents contracting the virus.

Imaad was one of them. He tells Tribune that authorities ‘let the infected ones mix with everyone’, so that one week later, 120 cases were confirmed. With up to 26 men to a dorm, separated only by bedsheets, Imaad says social distancing was impossible and the outbreak therefore ‘inevitable’.

In January, asylum seekers in Penally reached out to their brothers in the other barracks. Saleh suggested to Imaad that they start their own union, which led him to establish Camp Residents of Napier (CRON), hoping to replicate the successes of CROP. Aside from connecting residents with outside charities, CRON’s role is also to amplify the voices of camp residents.

Imaad stresses that it is important to speak up about the barracks not only for the sake of refugees, but for everyone. ‘When it comes to disrespecting people’s decency and dignity, you should know that you could be next,’ he says.

Asylum seekers at Penally and Napier have also raised their voices through protest and hunger strikes. A group of asylum seekers even slept outside in sub-zero temperatures in protest against the Home Office’s failure to address soaring Covid-19 cases.

Earlier in April, Imaad tells Tribune, around half the men went on hunger strike. ‘Although they are really suffering, the residents inside, they want to be heard,’ he says. ‘You can’t communicate outside because you are quite isolated, and they think they have to express their thoughts — and what they believe — by protesting.’


Of all the work the unions have done, ensuring that asylum seekers’ voices were considered when inspectors visited both barracks in February was perhaps the most important. CROP and CRON translated surveys into many languages, ensuring that hundreds of former and current residents of the camps contributed to the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (ICIBI) and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) inspection.

Imaad tells Tribune that the inspectors were given access to fresh testimonies detailing conditions, as inmates were able speak with authority figures with trust and confidence that they wouldn’t give camp management or the Home Office. Their work, in Imaad’s words, was unveiling ‘one side of the story that was hidden.’

Perhaps as a result of this effort, the interim findings of the inspection were damning. Condemning the sites as ‘impoverished, run-down, inadequate’, inspectors reported that men had ‘little to do to fill their time, a lack of privacy, a lack of control over their day-to-day lives, and limited information about what would happen to them,’ noting that these factors ‘had a corrosive effect on residents’ morale and mental health.’ Despite the inspection, the Home Office has pledged to keep using Napier Barracks, even announcing plans to move out the existing residents so that new ones can arrive early next month.

Winning the Battle, Not the War

While CROP fought doggedly for asylum seekers in Penally, the goal was always to shut down the barracks for good. This has only been half achieved; earlier this month, the government announced that it would not be seeking renewed planning permission for Penally beyond the six months granted by emergency powers, which expired on 21 March. As such, all asylum seekers have now been moved out.

Saleh was transferred from Penally in November, but he intends to continue CROP’s work, with the committee now considering how they could help asylum seekers in hotels and hostels. With many men now scarred by their experiences, their priority is to shut down Napier and ensure no refugee is ever put in these conditions again.

‘I think that we have to try — we have to not forget them,’ he says. ‘If the Home Office wants to put us on some island 1000 miles away from Europe, they will do that, if they can.’

While recognizing the small victories of CROP and CRON, and despite the sweetness of partial victory over Priti Patel and the Home Office, Saleh also knows that the struggle for a more humane environment for asylum seekers is far from over. ‘We should not be quiet,’ he tells Tribune. ‘We should not surrender. Closing one camp is a battle. It’s very good news — but it’s not the end of the war.’

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