Anger and empathy in English village chosen to house nearby asylum seekers

About 1,700 young men are due to move into a former military base next to picture-perfect Wethersfield. But while most villagers are opposed, there is also sympathy for the migrants

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The UK has chosen a former military base in the countryside just outside the picture-postcard village of Wethersfield to house up to 1,700 migrants, some of whom have already moved in.

Asked by The National what they thought of the plans, the women’s responses reflect the almost universal opposition to them.

But within the group, who asked for their names to be withheld, there is a range of views about migrants and refugees.

“Who would be willing to have nearly 2,000 migrants on their doorstep?” asked one.

Her friend was more forthright saying: “They shouldn’t be here at all. Full stop.”

Another replied: “It’s just a lot of people for a very small village. If it was just 30, 40 or 50 they could be given a lot of support. I don’t think it’s fair for them either.”

Wethersfield is set in the rolling English countryside in the county of Essex, about two hours' drive from London, and has about 700 residents. There is one shop, which is around the back of the village hall.

The camp was originally known as RAF Wethersfield and was first used during the Second World War before being taken over by the US Air Force during the Cold War.

Later it was used as a training centre for the Ministry of Defence’s Police Force.

The 300ha site is surrounded by a barbed wire fence and there are security staff manning the entrance.

About 40 migrants, who are believed to have arrived in the UK after crossing the English Channel in small boats, are the first occupants.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has made stopping the boats one of his government's key pledges. About 12,000 have made the crossing so far this year, while last year the total topped 45,000. Huge tents have also been bought to house migrants to avoid the more expensive option of keeping them in hotels.

Those residents The National met in the village speak warmly about the sense of community that exists there.

While there have been protests by anti-migrant, far-right groups Britain First and Patriotic Alternative after the camp opened, the views of those who live there appear to be more nuanced.

Many are concerned about the presence of so many young men in one place and the lack of infrastructure to support the camp, such as the narrow winding roads, and a lack of buses for migrants to use if they want to travel to the nearest town, Braintree, about 14km away.

Their anger is compounded by proposals to build what would be Britain’s biggest prison, and one of Europe’s largest, capable of housing 3,430 inmates, at the site.

They are also alarmed at a government report – obtained under a freedom of information request by residents’ group The Fields Association, who are opposing the plans – which revealed there was a “high risk” of undetonated explosives at the camp.

David Price, 65, a Scotsman who worked as a nurse treating drug addicts in the National Health Service for three decades, is one of the residents who has been campaigning against housing migrants in the camp.

“What many people will recognise is that many of them have had a difficult journey even getting there,” Mr Price told The National.

“We’re just saying it’s the wrong place and it’s totally out of scale of anything in the surrounding villages.

“We don’t mind taking our fair share but it has to be a reasonable number. Our foe is not the asylum seekers. Our foe is the Home Office.”

At the camp, only a handful of migrants can be seen milling around beside a building that has been converted into a gym.

It’s so crass putting people who’ve come from war zones in a camp surrounded by barbed wire fence
David Price

After an outbreak of scabies was reported in the camp, local people say migrants have not been allowed out.

On a walk around the perimeter, Mr Price points at the barbed-wire fencing surrounding it.

“It’s so crass putting people who’ve come from war zones in a camp surrounded by a barbed-wire fence. Some local people have compared it to a stalag.

“There’s a shooting club just down there which I can hear down in the village and the camp is just adjacent to it.

“That was the welcome they got the first night they were here. The sound of clay pigeons being shot for the first couple of hours.

“It’s so insensitive to the psychological needs of the young men, many of whom will have been traumatised by civil wars, being held in detention centres.”

Back in the village, Mike Kemp, 79, a retired engineer, was out walking his dog when he stopped to talk to The National.

Referring to the reports of explosives, he said “it’s not a great place” to house migrants.

“I can understand them wanting to get away from their own countries where there’s conflict, like the Ukrainians who were welcomed here with open arms,” Mr Kemp said. “We had people put them up.

“But that’s a relatively small number that we could cope with. There’s so many things against it that make it difficult for the people living here.

“I just don’t think it’s a good idea. The Home Office have no idea about the local area.”

A particular focus of anger has been what they say is the lack of consultation and Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s use of wartime emergency powers to circumvent planning consultations.

Her decision is the subject of a judicial review being brought by a Wethersfield resident and a local council.

Alan MacKenzie, chair of the Fields Association, said it was a case of “wrong plan, wrong place”.

“There’s a lot of sympathy for people who are fleeing for their lives from Iran, Afghanistan, Syria,” Mr MacKenzie said.

“Coming to a safe country, people have empathy with them but what they don’t have empathy with is putting that sort of number in the middle of nowhere.

“If it was 200 or 300 then people might say, ‘We don’t really want an asylum centre here but we’ll do our bit’.”

He said some local people offered to help the migrants “but with 1,700 people there, what can they possibly do?” .

The sheer number of single men in one place has led to anxiety among the elderly and women in the village.

“As the chairman of the parish council said, even if you put 1,700 trainee clerics together in a group you are going to get some form of trouble,” Mr MacKenzie said.

“It’s always going to be a small proportion of people who are going to cause difficulties and that’s a natural worry.”

For others in the community, the effects of the camp have been felt financially.

One woman, who lives on a road running by the camp’s perimeter fence, told The National the value of her home has gone down by “£150,000” ($191,985) while others “have lost even more”.

“We’re all extremely concerned. It’s not what we wanted,” she said.

The woman said she was “bitter” at the failure of successive prime ministers to get a grip on migration.

The Home Office said it was committed to reducing the £6 million a day being spent on accommodating migrants in hotels and elsewhere.

“Delivering accommodation on surplus military sites will provide cheaper and more orderly, suitable accommodation for those arriving in small boats while helping to reduce the use of hotels,” said a representative.

“These accommodation sites will house asylum seekers in basic, safe and secure accommodation as they await a decision on their claim.

“We understand the concerns of local communities, and will work closely with councils and key partners to manage the impact of using these sites, including liaising with local police to make sure appropriate arrangements are in place.”

Villagers must now await the outcome of the review being undertaken by High Court Judge Justine Thornton.

In the meantime, Mr Price says they are trying to avoid being sucked into often toxic and polarised arguments about migration.

“We don’t want people coming here peddling their far-right agenda and we don’t want to get involved with the debate around asylum seekers, immigration, economic migrants, whatever.”

Updated: August 04, 2023, 7:36 AM