UK asylum crisis: Home Office plans to house refugees in military sites ‘unworkable’ and will ‘add more cost’

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Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick has confirmed that old military bases will be used to house thousands of asylum seekers.

Housing refugees in military bases and barges is “unworkable”, “inappropriate”, and will only add “more cost” to the system, charities say, as the government announces new plans to deal with the asylum crisis.

Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick on Wednesday (29 March) unveiled plans to house thousands of asylum seekers in disused military bases in order to accommodate their “essential living needs and nothing more”. The MP also told the House of Commons that he is “continuing to explore the possibility” of using ferries and barges for refugees, as he looks for ways to reduce the “eye watering” reliance on hotels.

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RAF Wethersfield in Essex and RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire were two of the sites which Jenrick confirmed would be used for this purpose - despite threats of legal challenges from Tories in the areas. The MP also said Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was “showing leadership” by “bringing forward proposals” to use barracks in Catterick Garrison in his own constituency, Richmond (Yorkshire).

But refugee charities have slammed the proposals, arguing that they are “unsuitable” and “inappropriate” for people who have arrived in the UK in search of a safe haven. Alex Fraser, the British Red Cross’s UK director for refugee support, told NationalWorld that military sites could “re-traumatise” vulnerable men and women.

He said: “We know from our work supporting people seeking asylum that these sites will be entirely inappropriate and will lead to significant suffering. People who have been forced to flee their homes have already experienced unimaginable trauma. They need stability, support, to be able to maintain contact with their loved ones, and to feel safe.”

“Military sites, by their very nature, can re-traumatise people who have fled war and persecution,” he continued. “These sites may also put vulnerable people at risk of exploitation.”

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The government wants to house migrants on military bases. Credit: Adobe Stock/Kim MoggThe government wants to house migrants on military bases. Credit: Adobe Stock/Kim Mogg
The government wants to house migrants on military bases. Credit: Adobe Stock/Kim Mogg | Credit: Adobe Stock/Kim Mogg

Meanwhile, the Refugee Council argued that the plans will do the opposite of what was intended - and will add “more cost” and “more chaos” to the system. The charity’s CEO Enver Solomon said: “The use of unsuitable contingency accommodation is a direct consequence of the chronic delays and huge backlog in the asylum system. There would be no need for hotels if cases were processed promptly and effectively.

“To end the use of hotels, the government must focus on fixing the chaotic and inefficient asylum system by urgently addressing the backlog. It must replace the disorder and costs that we’re currently seeing with an approach that is orderly, well-run and compassionate.”

He also expressed “deep concern” about the fact that this sort of accommodation is “entirely unsuitable” to the needs of asylum seekers, arguing: “We must ensure that people fleeing war, conflict and persecution can access safe, dignified, and appropriate accommodation while in the UK asylum system.”

Amnesty International added that the proposals will not deter migrant crossings, with refugee and migrant rights programme director, Steve Valdez-Symonds, telling Sky News: “People don’t get into dangerous boats or on the back of lorries and make dangerous journeys, putting themselves in the hands of, quite frankly, very dangerous people, on the basis of trying to get some meagre accommodation in a hotel.”

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Jenrick claimed the plans were necessary in order to stop the use of hotels to house asylum seekers, which he said has resulted in a loss of tourism as well as cancelled weddings. “We must not elevate the well-being of illegal migrants above those of the British people,” he insisted.

The Tory MP also said that the new accommodation “should meet [migrants’] essential living needs and nothing more” - with the government “committed to meeting our legal obligations for those who would otherwise be destitute” but “not prepared to go further.” He added that the UK “cannot risk becoming a magnet for the millions of people who are displaced and seeking better economic prospects.”

A fiery debate in the House of Commons followed the announcement, with backlash from MPs across political parties. Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesperson Alistair Carmichael said: “Only the current Home Office team could think that the answer to the problem of growing numbers of people in small boats was to ‘take them all together and put them into one big boat’.”

Labour’s shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, argued that the government was “desperate to distract” from their policies. She said: “They are flailing around in a panic chasing headlines, barges, oil rigs, Rwanda flights, even wave machines - instead of doing the hard graft. They have lost control of our border security, lost control of the asylum system, lost control of their budget, and lost control of themselves.”

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Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick today confirmed that old military bases will be used to house thousands of asylum seekers. Credit: PAImmigration Minister Robert Jenrick today confirmed that old military bases will be used to house thousands of asylum seekers. Credit: PA
Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick today confirmed that old military bases will be used to house thousands of asylum seekers. Credit: PA | PA

There was also criticism from Conservative MPs, many of whom were concerned over the impacts the plans would have on local services in their constituencies. Former Home Secretary Priti Patel argued that RAF Wethersfield, near her constituency, would not be a suitable location - and pressed Jenrick on why the plans to turn former RAF station Linton-on-Ouse into a centre for asylum seekers were scrapped.

“Can I ask why it is deemed appropriate for asylum seeker accommodation to be placed in a rural village in Essex with single men where there is no infrastructure, no amenities, but it was not appropriate for somewhere like Linton-on-Ouse?”

Meanwhile, Conservative former minister Sir Edward Leigh vowed to fight plans for a detention centre at RAF Scampton - saying he was concerned for the safety of his constituents, and the potential loss of listed buildings and the heritage of the Dambusters and Red Arrows.

Tory MP Richard Drax added: “Land-based reception camps in the right place has to be the solution. Does the minister (Jenrick) agree with me that if you look at what’s happened in hotels so far with illegal migrants, we’ve had all kinds of issues with local residents, disappearing children, sexual assaults... So would he agree with me that putting these people on boats or on barges where the problem’s going to be exacerbated ten-fold is totally and utterly out of the question?”

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Jenrick replied: “There are no easy answers… but I do think that placing asylum seekers on well run, large sites with specific facilities provided, having minimal impact upon local communities is the right approach.” He also later confirmed that children would not be housed in military sites.

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