Social Justice

Asylum seekers 'setting themselves on fire' due to conditions at Wethersfield immigration centre

James Cleverly wants the Wethersfield base shut down. But a new report reveals how asylum seekers kept there are suffering

Wethersfield

Poor transport links and its rural location means asylum seekers on the base are isolated. Image: Nicola David, One Life To Live

Asylum seekers set themselves on fire after experiencing poor conditions at Wethersfield, a former RAF base being used to house migrants waiting for decisions.

Dubbed “quasi-detention”, there are calls to shut down Wethersfield, which is located in rural Essex and home to around 400-500 asylum seekers.

Concerns over conditions in Home Office asylum accommodation, provided to asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute, are growing after the death of a man onboard the Bibby Stockholm barge.

The details emerged in a new report calling for the base to be shut, as the charity Care4Calais launches a legal challenge over its use.

While he was foreign secretary, current home secretary James Cleverly said Wethersfield is not “appropriate for asylum accommodation” due to its remote nature and limited transport links.

Two charities gathered the testimonies during visits to the base. Image: Nicola David, One Life To Live

One asylum seeker, from Iran, detailed how isolation and poor conditions in Wethersfield had driven him to try to take his own life.

“I have attempted suicide personally because of the conditions of the camp,” the man said in the report compiled by the Helen Bamber Foundation (HBF) and Humans for Rights Network (HFRN).

“Once I tried to hang myself from the ceiling and once there was a group of us six or seven people tried to set ourselves on fire, they didn’t let us in the camp and extinguished the fire, I had a part of my t-shirt burnt, many others as well, it has affected our mental health in a very bad way.”

“We were told you only stay for two weeks here; it was a lie; it’s been two months nothing happened.”

As the government attempts to reduce the bill for asylum accommodation, it is moving migrants out of hotels and into controversial housing such as military bases and the Bibby Stockholm barge.

Barbed wire fence surrounds the accommodation. Image: Nicola David, One Life To Live

Despite Home Office plans to use the base for longer than originally intended, Cleverly has said he wants to shut the base down “as soon as practicable”. Asylum seekers are free to leave the base, although must often rely on shuttle services run by the Home Office to reach nearby towns and cities.

Home Office guidance says asylum seekers should not be housed in the camp if they have severe mental health issues or have survived torture.

But residents, many who have fled conflict in Libya, Eritrea, or Sudan, said life on the base triggered some of their most traumatic experiences.

“I stayed for two years in prison in Libya, and I was shocked when I saw the wire barbed fences in Wethersfield. It triggered all the traumatic experiences that I went through. In Libya I was subjected to human trafficking,” said one resident quoted in the report, which is based on casework and detailed assessments by HBF and HFRN.

“I was trafficked from Sudan to Libya. When I was in prison in Libya, they used to beat me everyday. I was asked to fight with them and, when I refused, they put me in prison and tortured me. I, with the other people, were told that we are slaves and we have to do what they would tell us.”

A legal challenge lodged with the High Court by Care4Calais alleges residents of the base are suffering the longer they spend there.

“The government’s accommodation policy is clear: military barracks and floating barges are not appropriate accommodation for anyone who has experienced torture, modern slavery or who has severe mental health concerns. Yet, we are routinely seeing asylum seekers who have experienced these vulnerabilities sent to the former RAF airbase in Wethersfield,” said Steve Smith, CEO of Care4Calais.

“Furthermore, there is evidence of people expressing suicidal intentions being kept onsite with no medical intervention.

‘This systematic disregard for their own suitability criteria suggests that the government has no effective screening process for selecting asylum seekers for these sites, nor for monitoring residents’ ongoing wellbeing once housed there.“

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The welfare of individuals at the site is of the utmost priority. 

“All residents have access to medical support, including mental health support, and the food provided meets NHS Eatwell standards, catering for all cultural and dietary requirements. A 24/7 helpline provided by Migrant Help is available to raise any concerns.”

“We continue to meet our legal obligations and provide accommodation for asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute.

“Accommodation offered to asylum seekers, on a no choice basis, meets our legal and contractual requirements and people are free to come and go.”

Help is available if you’re struggling with your mental health. Samaritans can be contacted for free, 24/7, by calling 116 123 or through their website here.

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