On Sunday afternoon a procession of more than a dozen coaches drove into Manston, the Home Office’s processing centre for newly arrived asylum seekers who have crossed the Channel in small boats.
As the coaches drove along the sunlit roads leading into Manston with autumn leaves neatly swept on to grass verges, forlorn figures huddled under blankets could be seen through the windows. Small children shouted the word “freedom”.
It is not possible to speak to asylum seekers while they’re on the site as their phones are taken off them. But people the Guardian has spoken to after they left Manston said they did not know the name of the huge site surrounded by barbed wire that they had been taken to, as it had not been explained to them.
The Home Office has come under pressure about the increasing numbers on the site and the conditions there. Officials admitted at a session of the home affairs select committee last week that although the site was designed to accommodate a maximum of 1,600 people, there have recently been about 3,000 on the site.
It is understood that in the last few days some have been moved off the site. But a small group of protesters who demonstrated outside Manston on Sunday afternoon said they counted at least 13 coaches going into the site, some double-deckers, some single-deckers – all of them full. It was later announced that 700 people have been bussed to Manston from a nearby immigration centre after a man had thrown petrol bombs at the site.
Those they spoke to through the fence said they had come from conflict zones including Syria, Afghanistan and Iran. The Home Office has said Albanians are the dominant nationality at Manston although sources the Guardian has spoken to dispute this.
Parliamentarians, lawyers and campaign groups have all raised concerns about conditions on the site with limited medical facilities, basic and overcrowded sleeping facilities and no access to lawyers or support from charities.
The immigration minister, Robert Jenrick, said he will visit the site imminently. Andy Baxter, assistant general secretary of the Prison Officers Association, which represents Mitie detention custody officers working on the site, said that Manston has unfolded as a “humanitarian crisis on British soil” with “pressure cooker” conditions building without a release valve.
“Robert Jenrick has said he is planning to visit Manston this week. If he is so convinced by Home Office briefings that conditions there are OK I would challenge him to pack his toothbrush and sleep on a piece of cardboard on the plywood floors there for the night,” said Baxter.
Lawyers have raised concerns about the length of time people are being held at Manston. It is supposed to be a 24-hour processing facility with leeway to hold people for up to five days. But some families have reported being held there for 32 days.
Toufique Hossain, of Duncan Lewis solicitors, said: “The abject failure of the home secretary to have any meaningful grip on her operational systems is clear for all to see. But wilfully detaining people knowing it is unlawful shows a total disregard for the rule of law.”
Sources have told the Guardian that the asylum seekers on the site are asked to wear wristbands with a number on them. They are referred to by number rather than by name.
The Guardian revealed in 2016 that asylum seekers in a Cardiff hotel were given wristbands to keep track of them. The disclosure caused uproar and the practice was quickly discontinued.
Some unaccompanied children are also known to have been kept at the site for weeks.
Enver Solomon, CEO of the Refugee Council, said: “The government is refusing to adopt humane policies that see the face behind the case, leading to a system in crisis where young people and families are subjected to further trauma and health risks.
“Many of the children we support who are stuck in hotels or have been placed in Manston as age-disputed adults are traumatised by the fact that they are not getting enough food, feel unsafe and in some cases are getting scabies.”
Protesters from Action Against Detention and Deportation staged a small protest outside Manston on Sunday afternoon. They said they were disturbed to hear the cries of children shouting the word “freedom”.
As hundreds more people arrive on the already overcrowded site it is not known how long it will be before these children will get their wish.