Conditions at a controversy-hit centre for asylum seekers have “significantly deteriorated” in the last three months, a watchdog has warned, urging the Home Office to “get a grip” on the escalating problems.
Charlie Taylor, chief inspector of prisons, said an inspection of the Manston short-term holding centre in July revealed early signs of risks materialising, including asylum seekers being held for far longer than was appropriate for the site.
Manston is at the heart of an overcrowding scandal with the home secretary, Suella Braverman, under pressure over reports she ignored legal advice that the government was detaining asylum seekers at the site for unlawfully long periods.
The Sunday Times reported that Braverman had been told to transfer the asylum seekers from Manston to hotels to ease the pressure but she refused.
In his report published on Tuesday, Taylor revealed that even back in July asylum seekers were being “crowded” into a single facility and exhausted detainees were sleeping on floor mats, and prevented from going into the fresh air despite some lengthy stays.
Taylor said while there were some improvements noted in July at Manston and other facilities, risks remained.
“When I visited Manston in September, some of these risks had begun to materialise and I met detainees who had been held for more than four days in a facility that was not designed for overnight stays and in which there was no access to the open air,” he said.
“I was also concerned that there were still no mobile phones available, which meant that many detainees, including some who were very young, had been unable to contact their families.
“Recent intelligence from a number of credible sources, including the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration, the independent monitoring boards and staff associations, suggest that the current situation at Manston has significantly deteriorated since our July inspection.
“We are hearing that detainees are now being held in greater numbers and for much longer periods of time in cramped and uncomfortable conditions, often supervised by staff who have not been suitably trained.
“As a result of these concerns, the inspectorate is planning a swift return to Manston and will expect to see substantial improvements. In the meantime, the Home Office and its contractors need to get a grip and urgently act on the findings of this report to make sure all detainees are held in safe, decent and humane conditions.”
Taylor’s report said that there had been “considerable improvements” since inspections of short-term holding facilities in early 2020, which found hundreds of wet and cold people were forced to spend hours in cramped containers on a “rubble-strewn building site”.
But concerns were raised in the report with Manston and other facilities at Western Jet Foil and Lydd airport.
Manston, on a disused airfield site near Ramsgate in Kent, is supposed to be a short-term holding facility where immigration documents are issued and some people begin the asylum screening process. They are only meant to stay for a maximum of 24 hours. While there is food, water, showers and toilets, the prisons watchdog said there are no beds or access to fresh air and exercise.
The report found “some aspects of governance were weak, especially in safeguarding and healthcare” with some asylum seekers denied access to mobile phones and others “inexplicably” not allowed to close toilet doors fully.
It said length of detention was far too long, often more than 24 hours and sometimes far in excess of this. The longest recorded detention of a child was 48 hours, which the inspectorate added was “unacceptable”.
Home Office data showed that, in the three months to June 2022, 4,161 people had passed through Manston and 636 had been held for more than 24 hours. The longest time of detention at Manston was more than 70 hours.
“It was particularly disappointing once again to see exhausted detainees forced to sleep on floor mats between rows of seats or on wooden benches,” the report said, later adding: “Detainees could not go outside for fresh air regardless of the length of detention.”
The inspection also found detainees were searched too many times and not always with sufficient sensitivity by Home Office staff, while detainees at the screening building were not allowed to use toilets in private. There were concerns raised about respect during searches.
“Detainees were then searched in full view of others, including rub-down searches of women and children,” the report said.
“Some staff were abrupt and impatient, including with children. We observed one member of Border Force staff pulling a young child by the arm with no explanation to start the rub-down search. The parent of another young child was instructed via gestures to remove the child’s earrings despite the child experiencing pain and distress as the parent struggled to do this.”
Last week, another watchdog, the chief inspector of borders and immigration, David Neal, said that during a visit to Manston he had met families who had been at the facility for more than a month.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We welcome the report’s finding that there have been considerable improvements to the infrastructure and processes in place to accommodate record numbers of people arriving in the UK illegally via small boats.
“As a result of these numbers, our asylum system has been put under incredible strain, but we recognise there is more to do to provide alternative accommodation for people arriving in the UK. We continue to work hard to resolve the current pressures at Manston as an urgent priority.
“Manston remains resourced and equipped to process migrants securely, and we will provide alternative accommodation as soon as possible.”