Doctors Without Borders treating asylum seekers in the UK for the first time

Charity usually provides humanitarian medical care in conflict zones and countries affected by endemic diseases

Migrants at the Wethersfield asylum centre in Essex. PA/file
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Doctors Without Borders (MSF) is treating asylum seekers in the UK in a first for the charity, which focuses on providing humanitarian medical care in conflict zones and countries affected by endemic diseases.

MSF said it has been working with Doctors of the World since September to assess the needs of men being held in a former military barracks at Wethersfield in Essex, about two hours from London.

About 650 men currently live at the site, which is under heavy surveillance from CCTV and security guards and is surrounded by chain-link fencing and barbed wire.

The number of inhabitants is projected to increase to 1,700 by the end of the year.

MSF said although there is a medical centre providing primary health care on the site, some have specific health needs that are not being met for various reasons.

The charity voiced concerns over conditions at the site and how these could affect the health and dignity of those living there. Some have told the charity they feel isolated and their mental health has deteriorated since arriving at the former military base. At least two cases of the highly infectious skin condition scabies have been identified among men living at the site.

“Many of the men held in Wethersfield will likely have experienced violence, war, arbitrary detention and other trauma and will require tailored and specialised health care,” said Dr Javid Abdelmoneim, who runs the project at the site.

“Everyone who reaches the UK in search of sanctuary needs safe and dignified accommodation in the community, not in isolated military barracks.

“MSF is committed to providing medical and humanitarian care to people seeking safety in the UK contained in large-scale sites.”

Several weeks ago it was revealed that asylum seekers at the base staged a protest claiming they had been verbally abused by staff and forced to live in cramped, prison-like conditions.

Video footage of the demonstration at RAF Wethersfield obtained by The National shows a group of about 40 asylum seekers protesting on the road outside the site in the rain.

One man describes the camp as “just like a prison” and “too cold”, then explains the asylum seekers are forced to live six to a room.

“The weather is going to get more cold, there’s going to be snow, how can I live in there? There’s no system to make us warm," he says.

MSF said it anticipates a dip in the men’s mental health, with asylum claims in limbo since the Illegal Migration Act became law and as the number of men contained in the barracks increases.

Although it is a new service in the UK, MSF has seen and treated asylum seekers in large-scale containment sites on the Greek islands since 2016.

“A consequence of the broken asylum system is that we are now seeing people forced into containment sites that operate like open prisons,” said Simon Tyler, Doctors of the World's UK executive director.

“These camps are not a sustainable solution for anyone there stuck in limbo, or the local communities. But an efficient and safe process can exist to allow people to rebuild, be active and look after their own health.

"Our medical team on the ground is supporting those affected with access to medical care as needed, with the welcomed collaboration of MSF.”

The project at Wethersfield will continue throughout the year.

Updated: January 09, 2024, 5:22 PM