Pressure is mounting on the Home Office over its plans to house nearly 200 asylum seekers in what campaigners have described as a “prison-style” camp on the site of an immigration jail.
The construction of prefab-style accommodation at the privately run Yarl’s Wood centre in Bedfordshire follow a series of damning reports on conditions at two former army barracks sites in Kent and Pembrokeshire being used to hold up to 600 asylum-seeking men.
Campaigners have started legal action against the expansion of Yarl’s Wood, which is set to house its first asylum seekers imminently, while councillors in Bedford have spoken out against the new development.
The Home Office has invoked emergency powers under town and country planning legislation to speedily construct the cabin-style accommodation without seeking planning permission through conventional channels. Images of the new site have been leaked to the Guardian.
The tension over the Yarl’s Wood site comes as the chief inspector of borders and immigration, David Bolt, said he hoped to be able to inspect the camps on the former Ministry of Defence sites “within a few weeks”.
Rosie Newbigging, a former Labour parliamentary candidate for Welwyn Hatfield, in Hertfordshire, and a volunteer for refugee support charity Care4Calais and Stand Up to Racism Bedford, has sent a letter before action to the Home Office and Bedford borough council – the first step in judicial review proceedings.
Newbigging, who has raised more than £16,000 towards her lawsuit on a crowdfunding website, said: “Development of the site is already under way, with the Home Office claiming that emergency provisions under town and country planning regulations, allow them to develop sites without planning permission or essential environmental or social risk assessments.
“This means that there has been no consultation, none of the usual scrutiny by responsible agencies, and in fact there has not even been publication of the plans in the public domain.
She added: “The emotional impact of using camp-style accommodation, in a remote area, next to an immigration removal centre, with virtually no access to support in the community, is something we all need to oppose.”
Louise Jackson, portfolio holder for health and wellbeing at Bedford council, said she had a constructive meeting with Home Office officials but significant concerns still remain.
“I’m fundamentally opposed to that model. I think they’re treating some vulnerable people with complete lack of dignity,” she said.
“It looks like a prisoner of war camp. These people are traumatised. You don’t make that journey for that reason.”
She added: “I find it unacceptable that with hotels, holiday parks, offices shut, the only suitable accommodation for people fleeing war and life trauma is a Portakabin on an industrial park.”
Jackson said it had echoes of “the hostile environment” policy spearheaded by the former prime minister, Theresa May, which drove the Windrush scandal.
“We’re an area with a high infection rate, in a pandemic, you’re talking about moving 200 people from somewhere else in the country, into unsuitable accommodation which helps the virus to spread. All these ideas were conceived prior to the new variant being identified, she said.
“Why hasn’t the home secretary gone back in light of what we now know about the new variant and reviewed the plans?”
More than 50 organisations, including Stand Up to Racism, Refugee Council, Freedom From Torture, Unite and Doctors of the World have signed a petition to stop the move.
The founder of Care4Calais, Clare Moseley, said: “It’s the freezing cold middle of winter and the Home Office thinks it’s acceptable to force vulnerable refugees to live in flimsy Portakabins.
“The people that come to the UK for asylum are traumatised, they’ve escaped unimaginable wars and persecution, to lock them up at Yarl’s Wood is cruel. The prison-style camp the Home Office is building at Yarl’s Wood will be a place of misery for refugees, when what they need is a place of safety.”
The minister for immigration compliance, Chris Philp, said: “To ensure we have sufficient accommodation available to meet our statutory obligations we are considering the use of a vacant site adjacent to the existing Immigration Removal Centre to accommodate asylum seekers while their claim is being fully processed.”