Opinion

People of colour bear the brunt of hostile immigration policies – it's a stain on our conscience

Shocking conditions in mass asylum accommodation amounts to racial segregation, a report from the Runnymede Trust and Care4Calais has found

Wethersfield

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

As political parties race to the bottom on tough immigration policies this general election, the government’s dire treatment towards people claiming asylum is becoming clearer and clearer. Our recent report, published by the Runnymede Trust and Care4Calais, details the horrific realities for people seeking asylum housed in RAF Wethersfield, an ex-military site opened as ‘contingency’ accommodation for people seeking asylum in 2023.

Located 1.5 miles away from the nearest village, along a narrow road with no pavement, the Wethersfield asylum camp bears markers of the site’s military history – CCTV surveillance, flood lights, security outposts at entrances and large numbers of security patrolling inside. Behind the high barbed wire fence that surrounds the site live over 500 people seeking asylum, many of whom have survived torture, trafficking, arbitrary detention, and serious psychological and physical violence.

‌M*, an engineering student from Sudan who is now a resident at RAF Wethersfield, describes life at the camp as “like a prison”, reminding him of his treacherous journey to the UK, after experiencing forced labour in Libya. The accommodation is now notorious for its appalling conditions, with devastating reports that residents have resorted to hunger strikes to protest their treatment, alongside recorded suicide attempts.

‌The conditions at RAF Wethersfield are a stain on our nation’s conscience. It is also a racial justice issue. Overwhelmingly, people of colour are housed in RAF Wethersfield, segregated from outside communities via barbed wire and high fences. Of the 1,184 people seeking asylum, to whom Care4Calais has provided services, all residents are from a West Asian or African nationality.

‌In every aspect of the UK’s immigration system, people of colour are bearing the brunt of hostile migration policies, which are founded on racialised notions of who is and isn’t welcome. Of the people detained in the UK’s immigration detention system, Black people are much more likely to be detained significantly longer than their white counterparts. Immigration raids that take place across the country typically target Bangladeshi workplaces, with 60-70% of raids taking place in businesses owned by people of colour.

‌The government’s policy to detain people seeking asylum in so-called ‘contingency’ accommodation is no exception. There are currently roughly 50,000 people seeking asylum who are being housed in this type of accommodation, including hotels, barges and ex-military barracks. Research from Refugee Action confirms that 95% of people seeking asylum, living in hotels requiring urgent safeguarding intervention, were identifiably people of colour. These sites have become easy targets of racist harassment and violence from far-right groups. Hope Not Hate recorded a rocketing of racist incidents outside of large-scale asylum accommodation in 2022, with the number of these incidents rising to over 253 – an increase of over 100% compared to the previous year.

‌A number of legal challenges against the government’s use of such accommodation have been brought, including one by Care4Calais. The grounds of challenge included, amongst others, that the operation of the base, its remote location, austere and detention-like setting amounts to racial segregation. In other words, people seeking asylum, the majority of whom are people of colour from countries in the Middle East and Africa, are being kept isolated from the surrounding population without clear reason. As a result, they experience extremely poor living conditions, with little to no opportunity to leave.

‌The case of four lead claimants who are ex-residents of RAF Wethersfield will be heard in the High Court next month. The legal teams representing the individuals will seek to highlight the profound and lasting harm caused, arguing that the site cannot be considered suitable or adequate accommodation for people seeking asylum.

‌As the tides continue to turn against people seeking refuge in the UK, it is urgent that the consequences of hostile immigration policies and rhetoric are realised. Sites like RAF Wethersfield and Bibby Stockholm are what happens when we allow people fleeing violence and catastrophe to be dehumanised and othered. That this othering is happening to Black and Brown bodies should surprise none of us. As the country prepares for change over the coming months, we demand that this unnecessary cruelty ends.

Alba Kapoor is head of policy at the Runnymede Trust, whereas Hannah Marwood is head of the legal access department at Care4Calais.

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