The Independent

Asylum seeker hospitalised after hunger strike over Penally camp conditions

An asylum seeker had to be taken to hospital earlier this month after falling ill during a days-long hunger strike over the conditions at the Penally military camp, where dozens of asylum seekers and migrants are currently being housed. 

Speaking toThe Independent, asylum seekers and local volunteers said multiple men being housed at the Penally military site have fallen ill over the past month, with a lack of adequate nutrition and poor conditions at the camp being held to blame. 

In one case, an ambulance had to be called to the Penally campsite on 16 December after an asylum seeker was reported to have fainted after participating in a days-long hunger strike protesting the food and conditions at the camp. 

The resident was one of at least five people who participated in hunger strikes over conditions at the site, according to one asylum seeker, who spoke to The Independent on the condition of anonymity.

“We stopped eating food from inside the [camp] after we submitted too many complaints to the family office, the immigration department, the camp manager, the office, and the chef [and] no one responded to us, so we took a decision to quit eating,” they said.

A photo shows eggs that appear to be undercooked, which asylum seekers say they were served at the Penally military camp.A photo appears to show runny scrambled eggs being served to asylum seekers and migrants at the Penally camp.

After several days of refusing to eat the food provided at the Penally camp, the asylum seeker said: “Our health [started] deteriorating and we started to feel weak and one of the striking people was exposed to sudden fatigue."

The asylum seeker said residents at the camp alerted staff of the man’s condition and implored workers to call an ambulance. 

They said their pleas were ignored, however, forcing them to call 999 themselves, while local volunteers who have assisted them since their arrival at the camp also called for an ambulance after being alerted to the situation.

In a statement sent to The Independent, a spokesperson for the Welsh Ambulance Service confirmed that first responders attended the Penally Camp on the 16th at around 10:30p.m. after receiving “reports of a person having fainted”.

Images reviewed by The Independent show the man lying ill on the floor in his dorm at Penally and receiving treatment from paramedics. 

The man was assessed by paramedics and taken to the Withybush Hospital in Haverfordwest for treatment. 

He was kept there overnight and released the next morning, according to members of the Welsh branch of Stand Up To Racism Wales, which has been providing support to migrants and asylum seekers at the camp since their arrival at Penally.

The Home Office confirmed the incident, but said the resident was taken to hospital as a precaution due to fainting and later returned to the site. 

The agency said they were not taken to hospital specifically due to malnourishment. 

“We provide asylum seekers in Penally with safe, covid-compliant and weather-proof accommodation along with free nutritious meals, all paid for by the taxpayer," a Home Office spokesperson said in a statement.

“Penally Training Camp was previously used to accommodate military personnel and has since had a full renovation of its heating system," they said, adding: “We have high standards and carry out regular inspections."

“ People should flag issues with a particular meal to kitchen staff initially but there is also a 24/7 helpline and complaints process,” they said.

Asylum seekers said they did complain, but less than two weeks after the incident, another asylum seeker also had to receive care on Monday after falling ill after refusing to eat the food provided at the camp for several days.

Asylum seekers at the camp said the man had not been participating in the hunger strikes, which they said at least five men housed at the site have participated in this past month. 

He was, however, avoiding eating the food being provided at the camp, echoing the concerns other asylum seekers have raised for weeks over the meals being distributed at the site, which is being overseen by Clearsprings Ready Homes, a short-term housing company contracted by the Home Office.

They said he started to feel dizzy after several days of avoiding meals. 

The Home Office confirmed that a resident had been assessed that day by paramedics after feeling dizzy and was given paracetamol to relieve a headache.

Clearsprings Ready Homes did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Hellana Hetfield, a local volunteer and member of Stand Up to Racism Wales, told The Independent that she and other activists have been growing increasingly concerned for the health and safety of asylum seekers and migrants at Penally.

"The conditions of the camp, they literally get worse by the week," she said.

“Many of the residents,” Ms Hetfield said, have described feeling “severely depressed”. 

“They send me pictures every day of all the food…and they tell me about all the conditions they’re going through," she said. “We're just trying to get support for them all, really."

For weeks, asylum seekers and migrants housed at Penally have decried the conditions there, warning that they are not being provided adequate meals and are being forced to sleep in crowded quarters that do not allow for social distancing to prevent the spread of coronavirus and that are often cold due to heating components repeatedly breaking down.

Photos and videos show meager portions of food, with one photo appearing to show a piece of meat with hair still attached, while another shows a serving of eggs that appear to have been poorly boiled. 

Meanwhile, asylum seekers say they fear that they will contract coronavirus at the camp due to the cramped living conditions, with multiple people forced to share dorm rooms and open-plan bathing areas. 

‘Dehumanising’ treatment

Speaking with The Independent, Jennifer Blair, the co-head of legal protection at the Helen Bamber foundation, a human rights charity supporting refugees and asylum seekers who have experienced torture and human trafficking, said she was concerned that asylum seekers who have already suffered trauma are being forced to live under further traumatising conditions.

“There are people who have experienced a very difficult journey to the UK and some are survivors of human torture and trafficking. Then they’re being placed into a situation where they have no control over what they eat and they are finding the food to be very poor quality,” she said.

"You’re seeing pictures of chicken with feathers still on it and raw eggs,” she said. However, Ms Blair said there are also concerns over food not being properly labeled, making it difficult for some residents to know what they can eat if they have specific dietary needs. 

Ms Blair said her team had assessed asylum seekers who have sought to avoid eating the food provided, whether as part of a hunger strike or because they do not feel comfortable eating it.

The fact that they feel their concerns over the food being provided and the conditions they are being forced to live under at the camp, are not being heard, she said, “is dehumanising people who are already feeling dehumanised already”. 

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