Politics

Flooded Portaloos and outbreaks of scabies: Activists want 'appalling' Manston asylum centre closed

The Independent Monitoring Boards (IMB) has expressed “serious concern” with conditions in Manston, Western Jet Foil and Kent Intake Unit, three short-term holding facilities on the Kent coast

Manston migrant centre

Children shout "freedom" outside the Manston migrant centre. Image: SOAS Detainee Support (SDS) @sdetsup

Campaigners have called on the government to close Manston asylum detention centre, citing a damning new report that outlines ‘insanitary and unacceptable’ conditions in the Kent facility.

The Independent Monitoring Boards (IMB) has expressed “serious concern” with conditions in Manston, Western Jet Foil and Kent Intake Unit, three short-term holding facilities on the Kent coast.

The report makes for sobering reading. Over the course of 85 visits in late 2022, IMB representatives witnessed people forced to sleep on cold floors, overcrowding and outbreaks of illness. In one instance, Portaloos flooded, with waste overflow seeping beneath the floorboards of the marquees housing detainees.

The government insists that conditions have improved at the facilities. But campaigners have called for their closure.

“Manston is not safe and is inflicting further harm on people who have already survived so much,” warned Carenza Arnold, a spokesperson for Women for Refugee Women.

“Numerous reports have raised significant concerns about conditions at Manston – we urge the government to take heed of these and end their shameful and dangerous detention of people there. People seeking safety in our communities need safe, dignified and appropriate accommodation. Action must be taken now before further harm is inflicted.”

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UK detention facilities put the lives of asylum seekers at risk, warned Steve Smith, the CEO of Care4Calais.

“This report is absolutely appalling, but it’s unsurprising. We know the conditions in these facilities are not appropriate,” said Steve Smith, the CEO of Care4Calais. “It’s a safety risk. We need integration not segregation.”

This sentiment was echoed by James Wilson, Director of Detention Action, who described the UK’s facilities as “under-resourced and poorly maintained”.

“We welcome improvements to the Manston short-term holding facility, but remain deeply concerned about new reports that the Home Office plans to expand the site to detain up to 3,000 people at a time, for up to a week,” he said. 

“Detention is a dead-end policy that often does enormous harm to the mental and physical health of those locked away. It is especially harmful to children, even for short periods of time.”

What is happening in Kent’s detention centres?

The three detention centres in the report have all been in the news over the past year.

In November 2022, a Manston detainee died during a mass diptheria outbreak. Up to 4,000 people were held at the facility, which is designed to accommodate up to 1,600.  The police have also investigated allegations of assault by guards at the centre. Around the same time, the Western Jet Foil unit in Dover was subjected to a firebombing attack by right-wing terrorist Andrew Leak.

At Kent Intake Unit, staff painted over cartoon murals for children after immigration minister Robert Jenrick deemed the pictures “too welcoming”.

The report published yesterday paints a bleak image of day-to-day life in these facilities.  At Manston, “detained individuals were accommodated in marquees which we would describe as at best basic, at worst insanitary and unacceptable,” it reads.

“There were no proper sleeping facilities: there were no sleeping mats, and during monitoring visits in November we noted that some individuals were sleeping on flattened cardboard boxes, while others simply had a blanket.”

At the nearby Kent Intake unit, detainees also had to sleep on the cold floor, and endure a “stale, unpleasant atmosphere”. Western Jet Foil’s detainees also suffered from a “lack” of fresh air.

At all three centres, there wasn’t enough suitable clothing, so asylum seekers had to share. Outbreaks of scabies – highly contagious skin mites – were common.

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Asylum seekers at Manston were unable to communicate these dire conditions to the outside world, Smith said, as their mobile phones were confiscated on arrival.

“They were supposed to be in the facility for less than 24 hours, but many were detained much longer,” he said. In one case, a man was held at the facility for 43 days.

Have things gotten better at Manston detention centre?

A Home Office spokesperson insisted that conditions have improved.

“Since the inspection period covered in this report, there have been significant improvements made to the Kent coast short-term holding facilities, including transformation of medical services and facilities and the move to new more suitable accommodation at the Kent Intake Unit,” they said.

“The health and welfare of people in our care, and individuals working in these facilities, is of the utmost importance.”

But advocates expressed concern over the safety of asylum seekers.

“They promised that health and welfare were top priorities after they found legionella on the Bibby Stockholm barge,” Smith said. “And in that case, they published that statement before they let the people on the barge know about it.”

Ultimately, the government’s entire asylum strategy needs to be overhauled.

“[At Manston], one can assume they’ve reduced the overcrowding, and they have taken disciplinary action against the staff who [allegedly] assaulted asylum seekers,” he said. “But if conditions aren’t carefully watched all the time, these problems can recur.”

The UK is the only European country not to place a legal time limit on detention. Until this changes, asylum seekers will languish in inappropriate facilities.

“Expanding or making cosmetic improvements to detention centres will do nothing to address the root of this crisis: the staggering backlog of asylum claims that the Home Secretary has allowed to pile up,” Wilson from Detention Action said.

“Around 175,000 people are now waiting for a decision on their asylum claims because this government has stubbornly refused to improve the system or devote appropriate resources to recognising refugees.”

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