Asylum-seekers are setting fire to themselves at RAF Wethersfield

Asylum-seekers are setting fire to themselves at RAF Wethersfield

An important new report from the Helen Bamber Foundation and Humans for Right Network reveals appalling conditions at RAF Wethersfield near Braintree in Essex.

The Helen Bamber Foundation (HBF) and Humans for Rights Network (HFRN) have gathered first-hand evidence that the government’s use of Wethersfield airfield as a large open prison camp for men seeking asylum for the last 5 months has already caused irreparable and profound harm to the people contained there.

Since the camp opened in July 2023, HBF’s clinicians have carried out 10 detailed assessments of asylum-seekers at the site. HFRN has conducted casework with over 140 individuals there.

The asylum-seekers have displayed symptoms of worsening mental health following their transfer to Wethersfield, including low mood, loneliness, flashbacks, reduced appetite, weight loss, feelings of despair and difficulty sleeping, and a worsening in symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Individuals have reported anxiety and depression, suicidal ideation, intense desperation and fear, self-harm, and acute sleep deprivation. When one man shared his suicidal thoughts with members of staff at the site, he was simply told that it was “normal in this environment”.

By the end of October 2023, 508 men had been placed in Wethersfield – the top countries of origin being Afghanistan (29%), Iran (20%) and Eritrea (16%). Many of them are survivors of torture and trafficking and those with severe mental health issues. This is despite Home Office guidance making clear that these groups should not be placed there – in the first 3 months of being open, a quarter of residents were moved out of Wethersfield because they did not meet the camp’s ‘suitability criteria’ and had unlawfully been placed there. At least 11 children wrongly assessed to be adults have been identified in the camp.

The camp is extremely isolated, has overcrowded living conditions, and lacks the necessary healthcare provision, causing additional pain and trauma to people who have already endured conflict, oppression, abuse, torture and trafficking. The camp’s resemblance to a prison, with barbed wire and surveillance, triggers traumatic experiences among residents, many of whom have had experiences of other ‘camps’, in Egypt and Libya for example.

Wethersfield was initially proposed as a temporary site for 12 months, but the Home Office intends to extend the use of the site for a further 3 years.

“I have attempted suicide personally because of the conditions of the camp. Once I tried to hang myself 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… 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.”
Salman, from Iran

“The hardest part for me after what I have been through in Libya, is what I am going through now in Wethersfield. People screaming at night, gunshots can be heard. When someone wakes up screaming, I don’t know what to do. I came through Libya; this place is no different.”
Nasser, who travelled through Libya en route