There have been multiple reports of inhabitable, inhumane conditions at the migrant processing centre in Kent
“We really need your help, please help us, please.”
These are the words of a young girl currently detained in Manston, a migrant processing centre in Thanet, Kent. Desperate, she’d penned the emotive letter, stuffed it into an empty plastic water bottle, and bolted past security to lob the message over the barbed wire fence to the crowd of press on the other side. It was addressed to “journalists, organisations, everyone”, and dated October 31. The letter spoke of the inhumane conditions in Manston, referring to inadequate food and medical care: “we [feel] like we’re in prison,” it said. “They don’t even let us go outside.”
Manston has made headlines this week, with countless reports of overcrowding and inhabitable conditions at the centre flooding in – but exactly what is going on at Manston, and how did things get so bad in the first place?
WHAT IS MANSTON?
The Home Office opened Manston in January 2022, as a processing centre for people who had arrived in the UK via small boats. It was designed for between 1,000 and 1,600 people to stay for a day – two at most – while undergoing security, identity and health checks, before they are released on ‘immigration bail’ and either allowed to go and live with any family they may have, or provided with accommodation elsewhere in the UK.
WHAT’S HAPPENING THERE NOW?
That might have been the government’s intention, but so far, the reality isn’t aligning with these aims, and detainees are the ones suffering for it.
A report published earlier this month by the Prisons Officers Association (POA) paints a worrying picture of the situation at the facility. According to the report, there have been days when the centre has run out of food and drinking water for residents. It also said that “levels of bedding on site have become inadequate, laundry facilities are inadequate, cleaning regimes are not adhered to” and that “high levels of condensation within the marquees” have led to mould and bacteria developing. People have reported being forced to sleep on the floor. HM Inspectorate of Prisons also said residents have “no access to fresh air”, weren’t allowed access to mobile phones, and some were “inexplicably not even allowed to close toilet doors fully”. There have also been reported outbreaks of diseases like diphtheria, scabies and MRSA on the site, exacerbated due to overcrowding.
“This is a life-threatening situation. Unless people are moved into safe accommodation immediately, lives will be lost from a highly contagious disease, abuse or neglect,” Action Against Detention and Deportations (AADD) said in a statement.
“This is a life threatening situation. Unless people are moved into safe accommodation immediately, lives will be lost from a highly contagious disease, abuse or neglect” – Action Against Detention and Deportations
HOW DID THINGS GET SO BAD?
As aforementioned, the site is designed to house up to 1,600 people for 24 to 48 hours – but in reality, around 4,000 people are currently at Manston. Around 700 people were moved to the centre on Sunday, after a man attacked the Tug Haven processing centre in Dover with petrol bombs. Plus, some – including unaccompanied children – have reportedly stayed in the facility for three to four weeks. Giving evidence to a committee of MPs last week, David Neal, of a borders watchdog, said an Afghan family had been detained for 32 days.
Part of the reason why it’s taking so long for people to move on from the centre is that the government is dealing with a backlog of asylum claims: at the end of June, there were almost 100,000 asylum claims waiting for an initial decision from the Home Office. There’s also been a rise in the number of people applying for asylum in the UK, but this is no excuse. Benny Hunter is a youth worker and migrants’ rights campaigner who attended Manston on Sunday with SOAS detainee support: “the numbers aren’t hugely overwhelming. They’re nothing like the numbers that came in the early 2000s, and so it shouldn’t be difficult for them to manage people’s asylum claims”, he says. But the new Nationalities and Borders Act, which came into effect in 2022, has added “lots of layers of bureaucracy”, Hunter explains.
“There’s also been a drop in the number of people working on asylum claims in the Home Office, and a few years ago they withdrew their targets for making asylum decisions,” he adds. A recent report also attributed the delays in processing asylum claims to “antiquated IT systems, high staff turnover, and too few staff”.
WHO IS TO BLAME?
The buck ultimately stops with Suella Braverman and Rishi Sunak. Braverman has been accused of brushing aside advice that the government shouldn’t unlawfully hold people for more than 24 hours before they are moved to long-term accommodation, as well used inflammatory and hostile language about people who arrive on small boats. Other Whitehall sources have claimed Braverman blocked the booking of hotel rooms, although she has denied this.
Most people have denounced Braverman’s policies and hostile attitude towards immigration as cruel. Immigration minister Robert Jenrick has distanced himself from her, saying he would “never demonise people coming to this country in pursuit of a better life”.
“Things have been allowed to become this bad, and that is because of the policy decisions of the Home Office and the Home Secretary and this government,” Hunter says. “I would argue that there’s a point to be made about whether the Home Secretary has made a purposeful decision to not book more asylum accommodation, to not let people leave Manston, because it creates a terrible situation which acts as a deterrent for other people who might want to come to the UK.” He suggests that “they might hear that the situation is so intolerable that they won’t bother trying to cross, and that’s what the Home Secretary is trying to do.”
Maymuna Osman, an organiser at Migrants Organise, agrees. “The situation at Manston is not a one-off. It is part of the government’s violent and racist border regime which detains people in similar detention centres and immigration holding facilities across the country,” she says. “This has become a routine part of the government’s practice of making life unbearable for people who arrive in this country.”
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
According to Hunter, the government needs to close the camp as soon as possible. “People should not be living in a detention camp. There is no legal basis for it,” he says. “This has been done purely on the whim of the Home Secretary, so Manston needs to be closed down – as do all other immigration detention facilities.” To do this, Hunter suggests that the Home Office speed up its decision-making process in order to deal with the backlog of claims, which in turn would free up accommodation and allow people to leave Manston. “They don’t need to be detained,” Hunter says. “They can just pass through processing and go and be in the community.”
“People have the right to settle and to claim asylum and protection in the UK. The government is breaking international law and any humane standard by imprisoning people, including children, in these conditions,” adds AADD.
That’s what the government needs to do – but what can we do to help? “Join a protest,” Hunter says. “We have a protest [outside Manston] on Sunday; protest where you are; protest against Mitie, which is the corporation running the camp; protest against the Home Office; protest against the government.” Hunter also suggests showing solidarity with people in your local community who are asylum seekers: “find out where there are asylum seekers living in your community and maybe volunteer at a refugee or migrant organisation.”
“Or you can just talk about it. Talk about it with people you know, get angry about it. Don’t allow it to become normalised,” he continues. “It’s totally unacceptable that there are people detained in camps without any facilities. Children, young people, disabled people, older people, people with vulnerabilities, people who are fleeing torture, people who have escaped war: these are people who should not be detained. They should be welcomed and supported in the community.”