Refugee charity Care4Calais has accused the home secretary of housing asylum seekers illegally at RAF Wethersfield in Essex. The former airbase started receiving asylum seekers in July and around 250 migrants are based there.
The Home Office had hoped to house up to 1,700 asylum seekers at the airfield but Care4Calais argues in a pre-action letter that the plans must be stopped immediately.
Lawyers for the charity will claim that Wethersfield is a de facto detention centre and not suitable for long-term accommodation, with asylum seekers confined to the camp, apart from at certain times when a bus is able to take them out.
They will say it “cannot be rationally regarded” as suitable accommodation under the Immigration and Asylum Act, because the base is ringed by security fences and has only one entrance and exit, which opens onto a country road with no pavements.
Buses are irregular and the base is located 2.4km (1.5 miles) from Wethersfield village and about 19km (12 miles) from the nearest large town Braintree.
In one recent incident, asylum seekers were bused to Braintree only for the return bus to not turn up on time – leaving them to sleep rough on the streets overnight, the charity reported.
The Independent has previously reported on an incident where an Iranian man apparently collapsed while on hunger strike at Wethersfield, in a video passed to Care4Calais. The group said staff at the centre failed to get the man emergency medical help while one person, who the charity claims is a staff member, could be heard saying: “Yes, but he had three meals a day. Three meals. That was his choice not to eat guys”.
The pre-action letter also argues that the asylum seekers are segregated from the surrounding community by the restrictions. With the remoteness of the site, it is “effectively impossible for residents to interact with the local community”, the letter says.
The legal action comes as the Home Office tries to scale back its use of hotel accommodation for asylum seekers. Immigration minister Robert Jenrick told MPs this week that 50 hotels will be closed by January and the government “will not stop there”.
He said accommodating asylum seekers in disused military sites has been a factor in freeing up space.
If Care4Calais’s legal challenge gets to court, it will apply for all the asylum seekers to be moved out of Wethersfield immediately and for no more to be moved in.
The government has until 7 November to respond to the pre-action letter. Steve Smith, CEO of Care4Calais, said: “Whilst under previous governments, asylum seekers would have been integrated into UK communities through dispersal accommodation, this current government has given up on any pretence of trying to integrate asylum seekers into UK society, by putting them in de facto prison camps and barges.
“Falsely imprisoning asylum seekers behind barbed wire fences, placing them under 24/7 surveillance, restricting their liberty and separating them from any semblance of community, is now the chosen policy of this government. We believe it is unlawful.”
A Home Office spokesperson said asylum seekers were free to come and go from Wethersfield, adding: “Despite the number of people arriving in the UK reaching record levels, we continue to provide accommodation for asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute to meet our legal obligation.
“Accommodation offered to asylum seekers, on a no-choice basis, meets our legal and contractual requirements and they are free to come and go.”