Residents at Napier Barracks in Folkestone, Kent, received a letter on Saturday from Clearsprings, the private firm managing the facility, telling them that they would not be allowed to leave the premises, and that if they did they could face arrest.
Last September, the former army base was turned into accommodation for asylum-seeking men and is now said to be housing around 400 people. A number of them are thought to be over 50, placing them at higher risk of the effects of coronavirus.
Lawyers have said the conditions at the barracks – where residents sleep metres apart, more than 20 to a room with sheets hanging between them – may breach the law, and have accused the Home Office of trying to “avoid scrutiny” of the situation.
The letter distributed to residents, seen by The Independent, states: “We have been advised that someone you live with may have symptoms that could be linked to Covid-19, therefore we have had no choice but to put the camp into isolation.
“You are not to leave the site under any circumstance. The police are aware of the situation and if you have been found to disregard this advice, the police may issue you with a fixed penalty notice or you may be arrested.”
The canteen on-site has been closed for seated dining, but The Independent understands that residents are still required to queue up for meals, which are now sandwiches, not hot meals.
Asylum-seekers say they fear they are at risk of contracting coronavirus due to having to sleep in rooms with others with one shared bathroom, and having to use a communal area to obtain meals.
The Home Office said residents who had tested positive were required to self-isolate – as well as anyone sharing a dorm with them, and that their meals would be delivered to their dorms. It did not confirm how many people had tested positive or were self-isolating.
It comes after dozens of asylum-seekers in the camp mounted a protest over the conditions they were being held in last week, warning that being there was putting them at risk.
One man, a Yemeni national, said he had not eaten since noon on Sunday because he was ill with symptoms linked to coronavirus. He informed the nurse and was tested for the virus on Sunday, but had yet to receive the result.
The 35-year-old spoke to The Independent from his room – a dormitory where around 28 people sleep with only curtains between their beds and one shared bathroom. He said he and his roommates were not being required to self-isolate, although a number of them had symptoms and were awaiting test results.
“People with coronavirus have been allowed to live normally among other refugees. Some people are not wearing masks and social distancing is not always followed,” he said.
“I’m scared. Yesterday and this morning I didn’t go to get my food because I was too scared and I feel unwell. One guy in this dorm has been coughing a lot in recent days and has fever. The conditions here risk the spread of coronavirus.
“I just fled the war from Yemen and I came to the UK to seek safety, but in the end I might end up dying from coronavirus in a barracks.”
Another Yemeni national, 26, who is in the same dormitory and said he also felt unwell with symptoms similar to that of coronavirus, said: “This is a very risky situation. It was a big mistake putting this many people together in same place.
“We should be moved as soon as possible. This is dangerous and it is damaging our physical and mental health.”
A third resident, 24, who didn’t wish to be named, said: “The situation was very bad before, and now in addition to that, coronavirus has spread in the camp among people. I’m worried I will catch it. There is nothing safe about this situation.”
Bridget Chapman, of Kent Refugee Action Network, called on the Home Office to act immediately to mitigate the damage, by closing the barracks and moving people into appropriate accommodation where they can isolate properly.
Ms Chapman said: “Many organisations warned that the barracks were not only unsuitable but actually unsafe to accommodate people in a pandemic. The Home Office was so determined to use ex-military facilities to appear tough that they ignored all the warnings.
“Now we are in a situation where people who should have been safe have been put at risk. We don’t know what the long-term impact on people’s health from Covid will be.”
Clare Moseley, founder of Care4Calais, said: “They already face cramped, distressing conditions, now they’re terrified of catching Covid and their freedoms are even more tightly restricted.
“The solution is to process people’s asylum claims as quickly as possible and resolve this horrible limbo they are being kept in. The majority of asylum applications in this country are successful. There should be cases that can be resolved more quickly.”
Minister for immigration compliance Chris Philp said the Home Office was aware that a “small number” of individuals had tested positive for coronavirus in Napier Barracks. He said the department was working closely with its providers and Public Health England to “ensure that all individuals who have to self-isolate can do so and are following all medical advice closely”.
“We take the welfare of those in our care extremely seriously and asylum-seekers can contact the 24/7 helpline run by Migrant Help if they have any issues,” he added.
Clearsprings has been approached for comment.