At an old airbase in a rural corner of Essex, it’s been a busy week.
Trees have been cut down, barriers put up and windows replaced in disused accommodation blocks.
For the residents living nearby, it’s proof that the rumours are true… MDP Wethersfield near Braintree, Essex, is about to become home to 1,500 asylum seekers, all of them men.
“We are told no decisions have been made, but we can clearly see things happening,” said Tony Clarke-Holland, who has lived beside the site for 25 years.
“We ask the questions and we’re just getting stonewalled. We’ve had no communication, so we’re not prepared.
“It’s really about the impact of the services… doctors, dentists, police, all those things. How is that even going to work? We just don’t know.”
The first discussion of the site being used began a few weeks back and there has even been talk of it happening as soon as April 1.
It’s currently home to the Ministry of Defence Police, which would relocate, as well as some army families, who would eventually be rehoused.
Simone Sutcliffe has lived near the old base for 41 years and describes the prospect of it being used to house asylum seekers as “absolutely dreadful”.
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“The women on the base – the army wives – are frightened to death. The men will be wandering around,” she said.
“They will be stuck in the middle of nowhere, which is not fair for them either. I do have sympathy for them.”
The old airfield is surrounded by fields and only accessed by narrow country lanes without pavements. The nearest village is well over a mile away.
‘Deal with application backlog first’
Braintree District Council says it strongly believes that the site is unsuitable adding that the Home Office continues to indicate that it hasn’t made any decision yet.
The concerns are similar to those in communities living 130 miles north at RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire – the former home of the Red Arrows and before that the famous Dambusters.
The local council had only just approved a deal to develop the 800-acre site earlier this month when talk began of asylum seekers being housed there.
Daniel Sohege, director of human rights organisation Stand for All, believes the government’s priority should be dealing with the asylum application backlog.
“Rather than spending hundreds and millions of pounds on these sorts of camps and unsuitable areas, the government needs to be looking at making sure that people are processed through the system faster, that they can start to rebuild their lives,” he said.
Government bid to clear hotels
It’s understood the bases would initially be kept for new arrivals, although it’s thought the idea is all part of the government’s plan to move asylum seekers out of around 400 hotels currently being used.
The calculations suggest 3,000 men in total would be temporarily housed at Scampton and Wethersfield.
But more than that have already arrived on small boats this year.
The government says the pressure on the asylum system is unprecedented and it’s committed to engaging with local authorities and key stakeholders.
But those living close to the old air bases feel they’re clearly being kept in the dark.
It’s likely to be a lively meeting when residents gather in the nearby village of Wethersfield to discuss their concerns on Sunday afternoon.