This week, The Canary spoke to some of the approximately 150 men housed in the military barracks at Penally, just outside Tenby on the Pembrokeshire coast. Penally has been leased from the Ministry of Defence by the Home Office, and could be used to house 250 people.
Conditions at Penally are hellish. Camp residents complain of inadequate and poorly cooked food, no privacy, and inadequate shower and toilet facilities. They are unable to socially distance, or to take proper precautions to prevent the spread of coronavirus (Covid-19).
The residents we spoke to asked us not to print their real names for fear of recriminations from the Home Office or Clearsprings Group, which is contracted to run the camp. All the names in this article are pseudonyms.
“I can’t describe how difficult” it is
Said has been housed at the Penally barracks for more than two months. He shares a room with five other people and is desperate to be moved into better accommodation. He told us:
It’s horrible here, I can’t describe how difficult. And every day it is getting worse.
People are really depressed and we have no hope. We always ask each other ‘why is it us that were sent here’. We are in the middle of nowhere, 45 minutes walk from Tenby.
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If it was Summer and it wasn’t during Coronavirus it might be ok to be here for a couple of months – but not now during winter. There is barbed wire around us and the camp looks like a prison from outside.
Said told us that many of the camp’s residents need psychological and emotional support because of what they’ve been put through. He said:
Most of us I think need a psychologist to be able to talk
But, according to Said, there is no support available at Penally. No psychologist, no counsellor. Back when the camp opened, a nurse used to visit once a week, but now there is no access at all to medical personnel on site.
Inadequate and broken toilets
On Tuesday 15 December, we spoke to Omar from Camp Residents of Penally (CROP). CROP is a union which has been self-organised by residents since the camp opened in September.
Omar, who is an ex-resident of Penally, said that he had been told that the majority of the toilets in the camp were in-operational.
Said confirmed that on Tuesday, 60% or more of the camp’s 42 toilets were not working, leaving the residents in severely unsanitary conditions. The toilets were eventually fixed but Said said this wasn’t the first time the toilets had been out of action. In fact:
this is the fourth time in three weeks.
All of the toilets are outside… Its really difficult in the morning or at night to go to the toilet or shower. You have to take your umbrella if its raining and find a clean [toilet]. In the morning, or at midnight, if you need the toilet you don’t want to go!
No privacy when washing
Omar and Said told us that the only functional showers in Penally are shared, without any private cubicles. According to Omar:
A month ago they brought in caravans containing private showers, but no-one use them because they have no hot water. So they are just for show.
Is it normal for people to share showers with strangers?
Said explained that when residents have finished showering, they have to put on their coat straightaway to go out into the freezing cold.
No protection from coronavirus
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.
CROP also point out that mask wearing is only enforced within the dining area, and masks are only available on request.
Omar told The Canary that:
a man had symptoms of Covid-19 recently, he was self isolated until the 6th day. Then they took him to the hospital after 6 days. Thankfully it was negative
Omar is incredulous that it took six days for the man to be tested. And he worries that if he did have the virus, he would have passed it to others in the camp:
[The room where the man self-isolated is] not designed to be a self isolation room because it doesn’t have a private toilet, and no-one from Clearsprings brought food to him – so his friends had to help him and risk catching the virus.
“I think they sent us here to get Corona and die”
Said told us that a minibus of 15 new residents arrived at the camp on Wednesday 16 December. Some of the existing camp residents asked if these newcomers had been tested for coronavirus; they were told ‘It’s not your business’. According to Said:
In some rooms there were free places, and they mixed the new people in the rooms – if they have the virus they will affect everyone.
Said went on, wearily:
they say that we need to be careful about spreading Covid, but they put us all together in shared rooms, with not enough toilets and shared showers We eat in the same dining hall, and we wait together in the queue for food – I think they sent us here to get Corona and die.
Inadequate food and nowhere to exercise
We asked Said whether there was space in the camp for people to exercise, he replied:
Some friends are interested in exercising but we don’t have a place. They gave us TV rooms to exercise in but they’re not big enough because people want to watch TV too.
Omar told us that the camp has only two social rooms, and just two TVs for 150 residents. He said:
How are people supposed to chill out, watch TV and exercise?
One of the chief concerns of the residents is the poor quality food. According to Said:
The food is horrible, for breakfast we always have boiled eggs, cereal and porridge. Yesterday they served us beef but it was like a piece of plastic and no one ate it.
In many occasions, residents ask for extra portions but always get negative feedback. Fruits are not served most of the time.
When the Home Office began sending refugees to Penally, racist groups started organising demonstrations outside. Said explained how this made the residents feel unsafe:
The racist protesters used to come here every day saying ‘you are criminals, why did you come here’, but now it is less frequent.
[One resident] was walking into Tenby and somebody steered the car trying to hit him, he avoided them by jumping [into the ditch]. Now when I walk along the road I’m scared.
Said told us that anti-racist protesters have organised a welcome party for those living at Penally, and a demonstration calling for the closure of the centre.
The one ray of hope in all of this, according to Said, is the self-organisation of the residents and the support they have received from outside. Said calls these people “angels”:
People outside are really very supportive, they’ve send us fruits, biscuits, a Christmas tree – they bought phones for those who didn’t have them.
CROP was set up as a union, led by camp residents, organising with people outside. Earlier this week CROP sent the following statement to Corporate Watch:
CROP [has] 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.
But, according to Said, this support is not enough. What is needed is the closure of Penally:
there are vulnerable people in Penally – there are old people there, people with medical problems…
People could put pressure on the government and local government to close down this camp, this is a military camp not for refugees.
People can organise massive protests against the camp – this is the only way to put pressure on the government.
CROP’s statement reads:
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.
The Canary contacted Clearsprings Groups for comment about the allegations made in this article. Clearsprings declined, instead asking us to contact the Home Office. So we contacted the Home Office too, but had not received any reply at the time of publication.
“A lot of people aren’t aware that we now have refugee camps in the UK”
On Thursday 17 December, a demonstration was held in the centre of Bristol in solidarity with the refugees being held in military camps in Kent and Wales.
The protest was organised by campaign group Opening Bristol’s Borders. The Canary spoke to Maddie, one of the protesters:
We felt that it was important to stage this demonstration to, first of all, make people aware of the situation. A lot of people aren’t aware that we now have refugee camps in the UK.
As residents of Bristol we are concerned that people taking residence in our city are being moved to appalling conditions in these camps.
[In my work] I take statements about the treatment that people are receiving in Napier barracks [in Kent] and the harm that is doing to them, people have described it as worse than a prison as those who are convicted and imprisoned know why they are there and how long they will stay.
“I am afraid”
Said is worried that if Penally is not closed down, the situation will go from bad to worse:
I heard that in Napier barracks in Kent some refugees have tried to kill themselves, I am afraid one day that people will start to do crazy things here too.
The far-right is mobilising to create a hostile atmosphere for those housed in the Home Office’s nightmarish military camps for refugees. The left needs to keep reaching out in solidarity, and demanding dignified accommodation for all.
Tom Anderson is part of the Shoal Collective, a cooperative producing writing for social justice and a world beyond capitalism.
Featured Image: via Corporate Watch (with permission)/Google maps
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