Asylum seekers move into Wethersfield Airfield in Essex

The former RAF Wethersfield airbase in Essex.
Credit: PA
Credit: ITV News Anglia

The first asylum seekers have arrived at a former RAF airbase, despite opposition from locals.

Forty-six single adult men moved into Wethersfield Airfield in Essex on Wednesday - eight miles from Braintree.

They were brought in from a processing facility in Kent over the weekend, and had arrived in the country from small boat crossings.

The Home Office said the site at Wethersfield will be "fully functional" by autumn, with up to 1,700 adult men there.

There have been protests against the government's plans in recent days, including on Tuesday.

Braintree District Council tried to block the plans but lost its High Court bid and an appeal.

Speaking at the site on Wednesday, Cheryl Avery, director for asylum accommodation for the Home Office, said: “We’ve got about 50 people arriving today from various locations, but they arrived at our facility in Kent at the weekend on small boats.”

She said asylum seekers are screened when they arrive at the processing facility in Kent. They are given biometric and health testing, and assessed for suitability for the Wethersfield site.

About 51,000 asylum seekers are in hotels across the UK, costing taxpayers about £6 million a day - or £2.3 billion a year.

It is hoped that housing them in sites like RAF Wethersfield will reduce costs.

At the Essex site, there is an on-site GP surgery, accommodation blocks, a dining hall with meals three times a day, a multi-faith centre and recreation facilities including an indoor basketball court and a gym.

“We do have a shuttle bus facility that will take the asylum seekers on site out to the local area but it’s all managed really carefully and that’s done on a regular basis as well,” said Ms Avery.

She said people would not stay at the site for more than nine months.

“We have a process whereby going through the asylum-seeking process they will be between six to nine months maximum and then they will be dispersed into another location if their claim goes beyond that.

“We don’t want people to feel they are stuck on one site or communities to feel that they are unnecessarily burdened.”

Protesters claim RAF Wethersfield is not a suitable location for such large-scale migrant housing. Credit: ITV News Anglia

She said the site is run by a contractor and manned 24/7 with CCTV cameras in place.

“We make sure that everybody is safe, both asylum seekers on site and the community as well,” said Ms Avery.

“We’re also working really closely with Essex Police to make sure we run the site effectively.

“They’ve worked really closely with other police forces in a facility we have in Kent and they’ve shared lessons learned around how to keep the community safe and how to keep asylum seekers safe.”

She said there are “a lot of facilities on site to ensure that people are fully occupied”.

“In our site in Kent we’ve got people who have a running club, there are art lessons, there are lots of activities that keep people occupied, but also to engage with the community as well and learn how to be a good citizen,” said Ms Avery.

Aerial shots of Wethersfield airbase in Braintree.

“Everybody who arrives here goes through an orientation process to understand what acceptable behaviour is.

“We know they’ve been through quite a lengthy journey and they’re in a new environment and it’s important they understand how to fit in and be part of the community and minimise any impact.”

She said everyone who arrives at the Wethersfield site is presented with a welcome pack containing toiletries and details, in a person’s own language, on “what it is to be a good neighbour”.

And there are “ongoing sessions” about integrating into the community.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The safety and security of the local community and those accommodated onsite is of the utmost importance.

“We understand the concerns of residents and are committed to continuing work with local councils, NHS and Essex Police to ensure the site is manageable for the local community.

“We have provided funding to the local authority and health services to support the site’s opening and will continue to keep this under review.”

Braintree District Council will receive £3,500 per asylum seeker, with additional funding for the NHS to run services on site. Essex Police can also bid for extra funding, the Home Office said.

The Wethersfield airbase had previously been earmarked by the government for two prisons holding 1,700 inmates. Those plans also received local opposition.

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