Napier Barracks is the Embodiment of the Right’s Scare Tactics

Britain's 'first modern-day refugee camp' at Napier Barracks is under investigation after a fire – but the right-wing hate campaign against migrants means that punitive detention isn't going away anytime soon.

Writing about how fear circulates, Sara Ahmed observed that it has an important temporal element: we fear that which approaches us. The fact of its approach makes it possible that the feared object, rather than materialising, might pass us by.

Instead of diminishing the fear, this intensifies it. Like a horror film in which fear is induced not by the presence of a monster, but by its absence, the passing-by of the object postpones the anticipated hurt or loss indefinitely – if the object passes by it cannot be tracked, identified, or, above all, contained.

Given this element of fear, it’s unsurprising that Napier Barracks, a former military barracks in Kent, was repurposed to hold asylum seekers in September, coming as it did at the end of a summer in which images of small boats carrying desperate-looking people across the Channel featured prominently on newspaper front pages. The site has since been described by Jack Shenker in the Guardian as the UK’s ‘first modern-day refugee camp’.

Since their widespread use at the close of the Second World War, the objective of refugee camps has been the containment of unwanted populations. Rather than rendering these populations invisible, the point is to increase their visibility – at a social and political distance from the surrounding community.

Napier, which at one point held around 400 asylum seekers (the number has now been reduced to between 50 and 100), is facing renewed calls to close after a fire last month, and the revelation this week that it was not previously considered suitable for long-term accommodation. A new investigation into the conditions of the sites has also been announced, but given the stories that have surfaced from the site so far, many will feel its findings are predictable.

The fire broke out following a protest against a decision not to remove residents despite a Covid-19 outbreak with 120 confirmed cases, which led some to sleep outdoors in sub-zero temperatures. An open letter signed by about 200 of the camp’s occupants in January described blocks consisting of dormitories housing 28 people with only two toilets and two showers. Reports of overcrowding, unhygienic conditions, and restricted access to healthcare and legal advice has led to condemnation from NGOs and professional health bodies, including the Red Cross, the British Medical Association, and the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

It’s tempting to trace Napier and the clamour for containment to events beginning in April, when Nigel Farage posted what would turn out to be the first of a series of videos on Twitter. The video begins with the camera panning across Pett Level Beach in East Sussex, settling on Farage reading a sign displaying safety information, presumably intended to establish him as a responsible, law-abiding messenger (despite the trip resulting in a police warning for breaching lockdown restrictions).

The video then cuts to Farage delivering a message to camera: Pett Level has become the favoured destination for migrants crossing the Channel, owing partly to the presence of a slope which allows boats arriving ‘under cover of darkness’ to slip away. While the Border Force apprehends some of those arriving, others ‘above and beyond the official figures’ pass by undetected. They walk among us, and cannot easily be distinguished from those who have a legal right to be here.

Farage stepped up his campaign against the migrant ‘invasion’ in the subsequent months, posting photos and videos of small, overcrowded vessels and writing in his Telegraph column in August that ‘it is time to declare an emergency in the Channel.’ Despite a 40 percent drop in the overall number of people claiming asylum in the UK during lockdown, much of the media picked up Farage’s framing of the increase in crossings; before long, reporters from Sky News and the BBC were going out onto the water in search of boats.

Little attempt was made to humanise those making the journeys or to explain the increase in terms of disruption to alternative routes caused by Covid-19, or government efforts to clamp down on safe, legal routes, which they had been warned would lead more people onto flimsy boats or into the back of airless lorries. The coverage appeared more interested in a different question: how afraid should we be?

The ambient fear of intruders has been particularly sinister in the midst of a pandemic. The history of the modern liberal state’s power to intern populations is bound up with concerns around immigration, infectious diseases, and racialised notions of cleanliness. Groups have long been cast as ‘risky’ in public health discourse in terms of race or country of origin – the contaminating ‘Other’, towards whom measures must be directed. ‘Border Force officers test 25 migrants for coronavirus after they were intercepted crossing the English Channel today’, ran one Daily Mail headline.

Napier is far from the only example. Penally camp in Pembrokeshire is also subject to the new investigation, and although the Home Office has now dropped its plans to house asylum seekers in Yarl’s Wood, plans for a new site in Hampshire seem to remain on the table. It’s not unlikely that more will follow.

The performative containment enacted in these sites keeps asylum seekers in a suspended state of approach. By preventing their arrival and assimilation while their asylum applications are processed (processing which is, unsurprisingly, slow – Shenker writes that three-quarters of asylum seekers wait up to six months for a first decision), segregation reinforces their strangeness, our suspicion of them, and as such, our fear, giving the Right who utilise it all to play for. History itself makes it clear that refugee camps intended as ‘temporary solutions’ tend to stick around for a long time.