Home Office under pressure over 'wretched' conditions at Manston asylum centre

Immigration watchdog said he was "speechless" after visiting centre that is at double its capacity
Manston immigration short-term holding facility in Kent. Photo: PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo

By Katherine Hapgood

31 Oct 2022

Pressure is growing on the Home Office to improve conditions at an asylum processing centre in Kent, after officials admitted to overcrowding and detaining would-be refugees for far longer than the 24-hour limit.

Last week, immigration inspector David Neal said conditions at the Manston asylum processing centre were “so alarming” that he was “speechless”, prompting a visit to the centre by immigration minister Robert Jenrick last night.

Appearing before the Home Affairs Select Committee last week, Neal described a “really dangerous situation” in which there were not enough officers and guards to match the number of people being held in the centre, where there have been outbreaks of diseases including diphtheria. 

Clandestine channel threat commander Dan O’Mahoney told the committee that 2,800 asylum seekers are held in the Manston facility, almost double the centre’s capacity of 1,000-1,600 people.

The facility is specifically for short-term detention, which is classified legally as less than 24 hours, O’Mahoney said. But he admitted some individuals have been held in Manston upwards of a month, waiting for asylum accommodation, which usually consists of renting entire hotels. 

O'Mahoney said it had become “increasingly difficult to move people off the site” at Manston because “we have not been able to move [people]them out into asylum accommodation as quickly as we would have wanted to”. Some 38,000 people have arrived in the UK via small boats this year, most of whom are sent to one of the seven immigration detention centres in the country.  

According to O’Mahoney, identifying adequate lodging requires a “very long lead time, of about two months, because there are a lot of commercial and value-for-money considerations, and that sort of thing, and community engagement needs to be done.” This delay has also partially contributed to the length of time to process asylum seekers in short-term detention facilities, he said.

The situation at the centre has reportedly worsened since O’Mahoney’s testimony last week, with sources reporting there are now closer to 4,000 asylum seekers being held there.

Kent Police confirmed yesterday that around 700 “suspected migrants were relocated to Manston to ensure safety” after a petrol-bomb attack at Dover. Police are investigating the attack.

When Neal, independent chief inspector of borders and immigration, visited Manston on 24 October, he was told that on average, 137 people were leaving the centre a day. “What is really concerning and alarming is that the numbers as described are clearly outstripping the capacity of the site,” Neal said. 

During his visit, Neal said seeing “nearly 2,500 people being guarded by untrained detainee custody officers” was “so alarming” that he was “speechless.” Of the three families he spoke to, one had been in the facility for 32 days, and the other two had been there for two weeks. “The mother was terribly distressed because she didn’t know where they were going,” Neal said, “so these are pretty wretched conditions.” 

Home Office statistics show there were 166,085  “work in progress” asylum cases as of June 2022, nearly double the number two years earlier. Many of the cases are backlogged from 2021, as 96% of last year’s cases have not been processed. Part of the delay was that there were not enough staff working on asylum cases, according to Neal.

The number of decision-making staff has recently doubled to 1,090, with 240 more due to join by the end of November. “This is fragile and it needs really good, strong leadership to ensure that people can get the decisions down and maintain the quality of decisions, as we are talking not just about quick decisions but about appropriate decisions,” Neal said. 

A Home Office spokesperson said: "The number of people arriving in the UK via small boats has reached record levels and continues to put our asylum system under incredible pressure.

"Manston remains resourced and equipped to process migrants securely and we will provide alternative accommodation as soon as possible."

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