The “crisis is not over” at the Manston migrant centre in Kent where asylum seekers were being held in “wretched” conditions, the chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee has said, after visiting the facility.
Dame Diana Johnson has urged the Home Office to “end this crisis once and for all” in an update on the state of the centre, which she visited on 8 November. The Labour MP’s comments follow reports of overcrowding and poor conditions at Manston in October, leading to the questioning of home secretary Suella Braverman and a letter to Braverman from Kent leaders.
Johnson said that while HASC was told the number of people in the facility had dropped from 4,000 at the end of October to around 1,200, the committee was still “perplexed” how the facility could ever reach numbers that high in the first place. “How was that allowed to happen?” Johnson asked. She then requested that Braverman appear before the committee to give answers shortly.
Johnson said: “What the Home Affairs Committee saw at Manston revealed that while overcrowding has reduced, and staff are making valiant efforts to improve conditions for detainees, the crisis is not over. We encountered families who had been sleeping on mats on the floor for weeks. Meanwhile there are ongoing questions about the legality of the home secretary’s decision to detain people at the site for longer than 24 hours.”
On 26 October, immigration inspector David Neal told the committee of the “wretched” conditions at Manston that were “so alarming” that they left him speechless. These conditions included reports of diphtheria, scabies, families sleeping on mats on the floor for upwards of a month and extreme overcrowding “clearly outstripping the capacity of the site.”
Then, on 30 October, after petrol bombs were thrown at a migrant centre in Dover, several hundred additional migrants were transferred to Manston, increasing the centre’s population to its peak of nearly 4,000.
The following day, Braverman addressed the House of Commons and denied ignoring legal advice regarding the Home Office illegally detaining asylum seekers. However, clandestine Channel threat commander Dan O’Mahoney had told HASC that Manston is a short-term holding facility, which is legally classified as a centre allowed to hold people for less than 24 hours. Many families and individuals reported being detained there for upwards of a month.
Leaders of all 14 local authorities in Kent then signed a letter to Braverman saying councils are “at a breaking point” and the Home Office has “failed at every turn” to manage the small-boats crisis. They cited the department’s lack of engagement with councils and residents disproportionately affected by the thousands of asylum seekers arriving and being detained in their district.
Johnson said: “The Home Office has been running to keep up with this escalating crisis, rather than warding it off at the outset through planning and preparation. The numbers of people crossing the Channel in small boats this year will not have been a surprise to the government, so why were adequate preparations not made? This question matters – because we may still see another major upsurge in the number of people arriving at Manston before the end of this year.
“The home secretary needs to end this crisis once and for all. That requires dealing with the backlog in the asylum system and establishing a system that is efficient and fair.”