Local leaders from across Kent have accused the Home Office of an "unsustainable and unacceptable" response to the migrant crisis in a damning intervention that demands they “stop using the county as an easy fix”.
In a powerful letter to home secretary Suella Braverman, signed by the leaders of all 14 local authorities in Kent, they say councils are “at breaking point”, after new facilities keep opening up to process Channel migrants and further hotels are booked up to house them.
Local leaders say the Home Office has “failed at every turn” to engage with councils and residents who have been disproportionately affected by being the area where thousands of asylum seekers have arrived into the UK in recent months. They urged them to work with councils across the UK to ensure asylum seekers can be processed safely and quickly.
Earlier this year the Home Office took over a former military base in Manston to use as a processing centre to deal with the growing number of migrants arriving in Kent in small boats.
While the aim was to make initial identity and security checks within 24 hours before moving people on to other accommodation, it has now emerged that some people have been held at the facility for more than a month.
As a result the centre, designed to have 1,000 and 1,600 people passing through it every day, is now significantly over capacity with up to 4,000 migrants currently on site.
“The situation at Manston is critical. We now have approaching 4,000 service users contained within segregated marquees as we approach the coldest months of the year, some having been on roll mats for over a month,” the letter continues.
“We have reports of tensions growing and concern about the potential for disorder similar to Napier Barracks in 2019, but on a site with a capacity ten times larger.
“We have had outbreaks of shigella, coronavirus, diphtheria, scabies and hepatitis, some only detected after service users have been moved on, raising questions about screening and outbreak management.”
Kent leaders worry that the growing tensions over Manston, which Braverman has been accused of addressing in inflammatory language, has meant that the county has become a target for “incidents of far-right activity”.
On Sunday, a man threw petrol bombs at a Border Force facility in Dover before killing himself, which is now being investigated by counter-terror police.
“We are deeply concerned about the potential for a further outbreak of disorder and the risk this could pose to both service users and the local community," the letter adds.
It goes on to accuse the Home Office of a systematic failure that means Kent has become an epicentre of the crisis as a result of being the area where most migrants who come to the UK via illegal routes are arriving, and then becoming stuck there.
Leaders noted that while the county “makes up just 3% of our country’s geographic space”, it is “continually called upon to meet national challenges and we do so willingly”.
“It is time to utilise the remaining 97% of the country to relieve the burden on Kent," they continued.
“We implore government colleagues to look at the burdens we are facing holistically and not consider service by service, silo by silo.
“Adult dispersal figures cannot be viewed in isolation. Government’s actions and decisions are materially and detrimentally impacting Kent’s residents, communities and taxpayers.
“The current situation is entirely unsustainable and unacceptable.”
In sharp criticism of the way the government has set up facilities in the county, they write: “There has been no consultation before sites are established.
“[The] Home Office have failed at every turn to seek the expert insight of statutory partners around safeguarding, public health, Prevent, fire safety, NHS capacity, school places, appropriateness of the facility or its location (e.g. issues relating to deprivation, crime profile, rural isolation, risk of trafficking) before residents are in place, and if at all then only after a crisis occurs requiring local intervention.”
They add that “every time we are then promised lessons are learnt, only for the same to happen again”, and that a “culture of dismissing local partners is endemic within parts of the Home Office”.
The letter also stated concern that the growing number of children being housed with their families “alongside single adult men at Manston" had increased safeguarding concerns and put further strain on local Kent County Council and Kent Police services.
They add: "We have hundreds of mostly Albanian service users not claiming asylum and being bailed and dropped at mid-Kent train stations with no follow up where they go or if they leave Kent."
The leaders demand that the Home Office and associated government departments "stop using the county as an easy fix for what is a national, strategic issue", and calls on government to "refrain from continuing to allocate further adult asylum quotas to the county and cease procurement of further hotel accommodation”.
In response, a spokesperson for the Home Office said: “The number of people arriving in the UK who seek asylum and require accommodation has reached record levels, placing unprecedented pressures on the asylum system.
“The government is working with all local authorities in England, Wales and Scotland to provide more suitable accommodation for asylum seekers and to end the unacceptable use of hotels, with more than £21m in grant funding already been provided to local authorities to help them respond to challenges in their area.”
The government also says it is dealing with an unprecedented increase in asylum cases and is working to procure sufficient accommodation to end the use of hotel contingency, which they say is a short-term solution to the global migration crisis
Meanwhile, they said the Manston facility remains resourced and equipped to process migrants securely.
Alain Tolhurst is chief reporter for CSW's sister title PoliticsHome, where this story first appeared