The former RAF base in Folkestone, Kent, has been transformed into a temporary accommodation site for asylum seekers who have crossed the Channel in small boats.
The first 50 asylum seekers who arrived on Wednesday to Wethersfield Airfield, around eight miles from Braintree, are people who were brought to a processing facility in Kent over the weekend from small boat crossings.
Cheryl Avery, director for asylum accommodation for the Home Office, said the site at Wethersfield will be “fully functional” by autumn with up to 1,700 single adult men there.
Speaking to the PA news agency at the site on Wednesday, she said: “We’ve got about 50 people arriving today from various locations, but they arrived at our facility in Kent at the weekend on small boats.”
The site, which can house up to 400 people, is one of several contingency measures taken by the Home Office to deal with the surge in arrivals this year.
The Home Office says the site provides safe and secure accommodation while the asylum claims are processed. The residents have access to basic facilities such as showers, toilets, laundry, catering and medical services. They also receive welfare support and advice from charities and volunteers.
However, some critics have raised concerns about the conditions and suitability of the site, especially for vulnerable people who may have experienced trauma and persecution in their home countries. They argue that the site is isolated, overcrowded and lacks adequate privacy and dignity for the residents.
The Home Office has faced legal challenges over its use of former military sites as asylum accommodation. In June, a High Court judge ruled that the Napier Barracks in Folkestone, another former RAF base, was unlawful and unsuitable for housing asylum seekers.
The judge found that the Home Office had failed to consider the impact of the site on the mental health and wellbeing of the residents, many of whom had fled war and torture. The Home Office has appealed the ruling and says it will continue to use Napier Barracks and other similar sites as temporary accommodation.
It says it is working to improve the conditions and standards of the sites, as well as increasing its capacity to house asylum seekers in other types of accommodation, such as hotels and dispersed housing. The Home Office has also pledged to reform the asylum system and make it more fair and efficient.
It says it wants to deter illegal entry and break the business model of people smugglers, while ensuring that those who need protection are granted it quickly and humanely.