MSF opens first-ever UK project supporting people seeking asylum

12 Jan 2024 News

An MSF worker stands by a barbed wire fence during a medical consultation of the MSF mobile clinic in Horgos 2 border crossing area in Serbia.

Evgenia Chorou/MSF

Médecins Sans Frontières, also known as Doctors without Borders (MSF), has for the first time opened a project working with people seeking asylum in the UK.

The project is being run in partnership with Doctors of the World UK, and is providing primary health care to men who are being held in a large-scale containment site in the former military barracks at RAF Wethersfield in Essex.

MSF, which usually operates in international warzones, has been assessing the physical and mental health needs of the residents since early September.   

“Whilst there is a medical centre providing primary healthcare onsite, the men we’ve spoken to tell us their specific health needs are not being met for various reasons,” the charity said in a statement this week. 

“We are worried about the men’s living conditions and how this will negatively impact their health and dignity.”

‘This kind of work is at the core of MSF projects’

MSF said the project was not a “political publicity stunt” and criticised the Home Office for its immigration policies.

“This is a humanitarian response to medical needs in a group of vulnerable people who have been targeted by punitive anti-migration deterrence policies,” it said.

“This kind of work is at the core of MSF projects around the world and the principles and charters that guide us. These same commitments also require us to speak out about what we see and insist on political responsibility.

“Alongside our medical work, we will continue to liaise directly with the government and bear witness to what we are seeing in the hope that the Home Office will drop its harmful policies.”

Whilst there are approximately 650 men currently in Wethersfield, the Home Office intends to increase the number to 1,700 by this year, MSF states.

MSF describes Wethersfield as “an extremely remote site, miles from any big town and cut off from community”. 

“It is heavily surveilled with CCTV and security guards, surrounded by chain link fence and barbed wire. The site is perceived as a prison by the population,” the charity said.

Javid Abdelmoneim, MSF project coordinator, said: “We know from our work around the world that harsh deterrence policies, such as holding people seeking sanctuary in mass containment sites, is a recipe for disaster which ultimately costs lives. This has sadly come to pass on Bibby Stockholm.

“Many of the men held in Wethersfield will likely have experienced violence, war, arbitrary detention and other trauma and will require tailored and specialised healthcare.”

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

“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 access medical care as needed, with the welcomed collaboration of MSF.”   

Home Office: ‘All residents at Wethersfield have access to medical support’

A Home Office spokesperson said: “We continue to meet our legal obligations and provide accommodation for asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute.

“The accommodation provided meets all relevant housing and health and safety standards.

“All residents at Wethersfield have access to medical support, including mental health support, and a 24/7 helpline provided by Migrant Help is available to raise any concerns.”

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