The appalling conditions at the Manston short-term holding facility for migrants in Kent caused anger and outrage across swathes of society in the autumn. The centre is housed in a former military base and opened in February 2022 to deal with the increasing number of desperate people crossing the Channel in small boats but was soon overwhelmed, leading to thousands of people being housed in cramped and unsanitary conditions for days rather hours.
In the Home Office’s own words:
“The aim was to run a site that had between 1,000 and 1,600 people passing through it every day, and that all of those [immigration security and identity] checks would be completed in under 24 hours.”
People would then be moved into asylum accommodation, usually hotels, with some being sent straight to immigration removal centres such as the one at Hassockfield near Consett known as Derwentside IRC, a women-only category D prison, which local campaigners are trying to shut down.
A “humanitarian crisis on British soil”
David Neal, independent chief inspector of borders and immigration, reported that there were 2,800 people in Manston on the day he visited on 24 October and that one Afghan family had been sleeping on mats on the floor of a marquee for 32 days. He also reported that untrained security officers were deployed as guards. Security at Manston is outsourced to Mitie, the company that also runs Derwentside IRC. Andy Baxter, assistant general secretary of the Prison Officers Association, which represents Mitie detention custody officers working on the site, said that Manston has unfolded as a “humanitarian crisis on British soil”.
By 31 October there were 4,000 people at Manston according to Sir Roger Gale, the local MP who, along with other Tory MPs, expressed his concern about the evolving situation at the centre.
Campaigners from No To Hassockfield joined campaigners from the North West at Mitie’s Manchester office on 4 November demanding that the firm stop profiting from human misery at centres like Manston and Derwentside. Meanwhile, protesters gathered at Manston and other Home Office centres to show solidarity with the people housed in its filthy conditions.
Children and unaccompanied minors are known to have passed through Manston and an outbreak of diphtheria was reported at the centre, with one man succumbing to the disease on 19 November.
The home secretary, Suella Braverman, came under fire for apparently ignoring advice from government officials regarding the UK’s legal responsibility to properly house asylum seekers and the BBC has now received emails as a result of a freedom of information request which show that senior staff at the Home Office were aware they were in breach of the law by holding asylum seekers from Manston in overflow centres.
Rewriting the law
Meanwhile, immigration minister Robert Jenrick has rewritten the law governing short-term holding facilities such as Manston, to dramatically downgrade standards of healthcare, legal advice, communications and sleeping conditions. The changes were lodged on 15 December as a statutory instrument without debate in parliament, or a public announcement, and will come into force on 5 January. Charities and human rights organisations have criticised the changes, fearing that victims of torture will not be identified after crossing the Channel, because obligations to report concerns about torture, suicidal ideas, mental health or any person “injuriously affected by continued detention” are being removed.
Existing rules mean that detainees of different sexes must be given separate sleeping accommodation, but Jenrick’s changes only require that “where possible”. Campaigners from No To Hassockfield condemn the changes saying:
“We know the psychological harm that can occur in detention for women asylum seekers who have experienced gender-based violence.”
A recent report from His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons for Derwentside IRC included evidence from a woman incarcerated at the centre who was triggered by the constant supervision of a male guard.
There are better ways
Instead of locking up vulnerable people who have fled violence, poverty and unsustainable lives, we need to fall in line with other members of the Council of Europe, by ending indefinite detention and pursuing humane community-based alternatives such as those trialled by Newcastle-based Action Foundation, funded by the government and commissioned by the UNHCR. As Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, said in a debate in the House of Lords on 9 December, “a hostile environment is an immoral environment”.
The government would do well to remember that this Christmas, as we send our usual messages of peace and goodwill.