The dreadful conditions at the Manston asylum seeker processing centre in Kent, combined with serious questions surrounding Rishi Sunak’s decision to reappoint Suella Braverman as home secretary, reveal a Conservative government whose immigration and asylum policies have failed. Opposition to immigration, much of it motivated by xenophobia, was weaponised by the Eurosceptic right to promote its aim of leaving the EU.
In Ms Braverman, who was appointed home secretary by Liz Truss before being reappointed by Mr Sunak, the anti-immigration wing of the party found a powerful advocate. With her personal enthusiasm for the government’s scheme to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, her row with Ms Truss over a proposal for new visas, and close relationship with hardliners on her party’s backbenches, Ms Braverman has escalated anti-migrant rhetoric beyond its already fevered pitch. The breaches of the ministerial code that she has admitted ought to have barred her from reappointment. As civil servants and their unions have pointed out, Home Office staffers have been sacked for breaking similar rules.
The precise sequence of events that led to overcrowding at Manston has yet to be confirmed. The local Conservative MP, Roger Gale, has said he believes that Ms Braverman may have deliberately worsened conditions there by refusing to book hotel rooms. On Monday she denied this, but whatever the reason, it is unacceptable for 4,000 people to be sleeping on floors in a centre designed to hold a maximum of 1,600 people. The chief borders inspector, David Neal, said he was “frankly, speechless” after visiting.
There is no excuse for the UK government to treat asylum seekers so poorly, and the idea that housing people in degrading, unsafe conditions could have been a policy choice is alarming. At least eight cases of diphtheria have been confirmed, as has one case of MRSA. If Ms Braverman ignored warnings that legal action against the government would be the inevitable result, she will be responsible for any costs incurred. Inflammatory immigration policies also carry grave political risks. This was demonstrated, horrifically, by Sunday’s petrol bombing of another immigration site in Kent. The attacker took his own life immediately afterwards. But the police and the Home Office need to explain why they appear not to be treating this as an act of terrorism.
That Ms Braverman used her personal email for official business repeatedly, and did not admit this straight away, as she previously suggested, shows that she is unsuited to such high office. But even more concerning than her personal shortcomings is the wider failure by successive Conservative governments to approach immigration policy in a humane, evidence-based way. The idea that leaving the EU would put an end to the movement of people into the UK was a dangerous folly. The notion that the threat of being confined in squalor in camps – whether in Kent or Rwanda – would be sufficient to deter people from crossing the Channel has been revealed as nonsense. The best thing Mr Sunak could do is come clean with the public. The UK’s asylum arrangements have deteriorated alarmingly, while policies regarding new arrivals have become a hostage to the Tory right. All efforts should now be focused on clearing a backlog of more than 100,000 claims. The Home Office needs a fresh start.
• This article was amended on 1 November to correct a misspelling of diphtheria.