Charity taking Home Office to the High Court over ‘prison-like’ asylum accommodation
A charity taking legal action against the Government over its use of a former RAF airbase as asylum accommodation said its efforts are a bid to “literally safeguard people’s lives”.
Care4Calais said it is taking its case to the High Court over the use of the former military site, Wethersfield, in Essex to house asylum seekers.
In a Home Office factsheet online dated November this year the site is described as providing “safe accommodation for asylum seekers and is designed to be as self-sufficient as possible”.
But the charity said it intends to argue the site does not meet legally required standards, describing it as “prison-like”, remote and saying people there are effectively stripped of their liberty.
It will also argue a failure by the Home Office to comply with the accommodation’s suitability criteria, which states that someone who has been subjected to torture, rape or other serious forms of psychological, physical or sexual violence and has been evaluated to have special needs as a result would not be suitable to be housed there.
The charity said it has a “significant body of evidence that people who have experienced these ‘vulnerabilities’ are being routinely sent”.
Nineteen emails, dated between September and November, regarding safeguarding concerns relating to residents at the former airbase have been included in the submission to the court, the charity said.
Home Secretary James Cleverly has previously spoken out about the site, which is situated in his Braintree constituency.
Before taking up his current role, he was critical when reports first surfaced that RAF Wethersfield could be used to accommodate asylum seekers.
Writing on Facebook, he said: “I highlighted the remote nature of the site, the limited transport infrastructure and narrow road network and that these factors would mean the site wasn’t appropriate for asylum accommodation”.
In comments carried by the Braintree and Witham Times last month after he was appointed Home Secretary, Mr Cleverly said he was “not going to change his mind” on his previous stance, arguing that he wanted to get to the point where such accommodation is no longer needed.
The legal action comes just days after an asylum seeker was found dead on the Bibby Stockholm barge, which is also being used as asylum accommodation, in Portland.
South Dorset MP Richard Drax described the news as a “tragedy born of an impossible situation” and said he had been told by the Home Office that the man was thought to have taken his own life.
Steve Smith (pictured), chief executive of Care4Calais, said there is a “systematic disregard for their own (the Home Office’s) suitability criteria (suggesting) that the Government has no effective screening process for selecting asylum seekers for these sites, nor for monitoring residents’ ongoing wellbeing once housed there.
“Our staff and volunteers are doing all they can to support residents in challenging their accommodation but, when reports of suicidal intentions are left unanswered and, in the light of the death of an asylum seeker on the Bibby Stockholm earlier this week, it is obvious why our legal challenge is so important in bringing to an end this systemic, unlawful process. It will literally safeguard people’s lives.”
He added that the charity is looking forward to Mr Cleverly “trying to defend the use of this site, based in his constituency, in the High Court, having already publicly declared himself that it is ‘inappropriate as asylum accommodation’”.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “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.”
Meanwhile, separate to the legal action, two campaign groups said they had gathered first-hand evidence of “irreparable and profound harm” to some of those housed in Wethersfield.
The Helen Bamber Foundation (HBF) and Humans for Rights Network (HFRN) quoted an Iranian asylum seeker who said a group of up to seven people had “tried to set ourselves on fire”.
The organisations said many of those housed there are survivors of torture and trafficking and have severe mental health issues.
Ten assessments by HBF clinicians and casework with 140 people by HFRN since the camp opened found men displaying “symptoms of worsening mental health”, including weight loss, feelings of despair and a worsening in symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, the organisations said.
HFRN director, Maddie Harris, said: “By placing men in Wethersfield, this government is ghettoising people seeking asylum in the UK, preventing them from accessing justice and other vital entitlements such as adequate medical care.”
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.”
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