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Can the UK develop accommodation centres in a trauma-informed way?

Jennifer Blair
David Bolt, Jane Hunt, Cornelius Katona and Jill O’Leary
Forced Migration Review

In August 2021, the government issued a tender for “accommodation centres” for asylum seekers “for periods up to six months” and stated that the continued use of barracks accommodation would “inform the final design of how accommodation centres will operate”, meaning that using barracks as contingency accommodation would be a model for future housing. 

Medical assessments by the Helen Bamber Foundation and others of those placed in Napier and Penally Barracks found that the accommodation sites were like prisons; in some cases this triggered a trauma response, particularly from those with a related history of torture in a military camp. Sleeplessness, lack of privacy, and uncertainty about how to access medical care or being denied medical care (including being triaged by non-clinically qualified staff) were frequently reported. Uncertainty about how long the people assessed would be on the site was also documented as decreasing their ability to cope with the accommodation conditions.

The findings of a literature review of the impact of this kind of institutional accommodation on health indicated that, even after accounting for pre-existing health vulnerabilities, this kind of institutional accommodation “is itself associated with poorer mental health outcomes”. The review highlighted factors such as those emerging from the assessments, mentioned above, plus others such as isolation, lack of freedoms, lack of access to cooking facilities, and reduced access to legal, professional and specialist assistance.

If the UK government follows the model of Penally Camp and Napier Barracks, the new accommodation centres risk becoming sites of social exclusion with a preoccupation with limiting destitution rather than restoring dignity. To avoid a repetition of these issues with any new accommodation centres, the UK government must ensure that: plans have been thoroughly tested with all relevant parties, in particular with local health and specialist services; the operation of the centres is closely monitored; and residents’ individual needs are met, including in terms of information regarding progress on their asylum claims and access to legal support.

Read the full article in Issue 69 of the Forced Migration Review