Home Office leaves asylum seekers from Manston stranded in central London

Exclusive: People who had been held at Kent centre left ‘stressed and disoriented’ at Victoria station for hours, some in flip-flops

The Home Office left asylum seekers from the Manston immigration centre in central London without accommodation or warm clothing, as officials attempted to reduce acute overcrowding, the Guardian can reveal.

A group of 11 asylum seekers from Manston were left at Victoria railway station on Tuesday evening with nowhere to stay, without winter coats, many of them in flip-flops, according to volunteers with the Under One Sky homelessness charity, who provided them with emergency supplies of food and clothes.

“They were stressed, disturbed and completely disoriented,” said Danial Abbas, a volunteer with the charity. The group, from Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, some of them wrapped in blankets to keep warm, were confused about what they were meant to do, he said. “They were also very hungry.”

Migrants who were left in London.
Migrants who were left in London. Photograph: Danial Abbas

About 50 asylum seekers from Kent were also deposited from a bus by Victoria coach station at around 11pm on Saturday, according to a witness. “They were still on the street at midnight, trying to work out what to do, where to go. They had no money, and hadn’t even been told where they were,” said the witness, an Afghan asylum seeker, who asked not to be named. He has been housed in a nearby hostel for the past 14 months, and watched them arrive. “I was shocked. I tried to help; I showed them where to get free wifi, where to sit and get warm in the station.”

Hundreds of asylum seekers have been rapidly moved out of the Manston camp in the past two days amid heavy criticism of overcrowded conditions at the immigration centre, where this weekend about 4,000 people were being held at a site designed for 1,600.

The immigration minister, Robert Jenrick, said the number of people at Manston had fallen substantially on Tuesday, but on Wednesday evening he admitted that there were still about 3,500 at the centre. Appearing on ITV, he told Robert Peston: “We gripped this immediately when we appreciated the scale of the challenge at the weekend, it’s now falling very rapidly and I expect that we’ll get down to an acceptable level within about seven days.”

The 11 men left without accommodation on Tuesday told charity volunteers they had been driven from Kent to London earlier on Tuesday afternoon as part of a larger group of about 40 asylum seekers. Other members of their group had family members or friends they were able to contact and stay with, but 11 were left by the station without anywhere to spend the night.

One of the men, a 29-year-old economics student from Iraq, said he had been held at Manston for 21 days after arriving in the UK by boat. “There were so many people there. They gave food, but only a little,” he said. He said he was told on Tuesday afternoon that he was being taken to London. “We were told we should go to our families or friends. I don’t have any family in the UK,” he said.

Paper wristband on wrist
Those left in London had paper wristbands. Photograph: handout

When they arrived in London he told the driver that he had nowhere to go, but he was asked to get off the bus. He had no money of his own and had not been given any funds by the Home Office. “I asked what should I do for the night, it’s cold. He said: you need to go.”

Volunteers from the charity, which distributes food to homeless people on the streets in London, took the asylum seekers to Primark and spent more than £450 buying them gloves, thermal jackets, shoes and socks. The volunteers telephoned the Home Office, which said there had been an “operational error”. At 1am on Wednesday, eight hours after they had been dropped in the street by the station, two taxis were sent to Victoria to collect the 11 men and they were driven to Norwich, where they were placed in a hotel.

A British Transport Police spokesperson said staff responded to reports of a group of asylum seekers looking for assistance at Victoria station at 10.33pm on Tuesday. “Officers engaged and liaised with charity partners, rail staff, and government colleagues to help them find accommodation for the evening,” they said.

Abbas, from Under One Sky, said the offloading of people at the station may not have been a one-off incident. “A British Transport Police officer at Victoria told me that that has been going on since Saturday – coaches of refugees are just being dumped here,” Abbas said.

The witness who saw the bus-load of asylum seekers being dropped at Victoria station on Saturday night said no Home Office staff were on hand to assist.

He said most of the asylum seekers appeared to be from Afghanistan, and they told him they had spent the past 10 days in a Home Office camp near Dover. “Each of them had a blue plastic bag full of their belongings, and a paper tag around their wrists. They were freezing and hungry. I went to the shop on the corner and bought them some cakes. I felt sorry for them – they were asking me where they should go,” he said.

Some had relatives in Birmingham and Manchester, he said, but no money to travel there. Others were able to call friends in London, and left the station area to find them. By about 1am all of them had disappeared. “They said they had been told there was no space for them in any hotel or hostel accommodation. I don’t know where they all went,” the witness said.

Clare Moseley, of the refugee charity Care4Calais, said the Home Office had a duty to house asylum seekers who did not have the means to support themselves. “They should not be leaving people on the street. We have had heard of another case of someone being driven from Manston to Southhampton, where there was no hotel room for them. It is absolutely chaotic and horrific.”

On Wednesday the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, said the government faced a “serious and escalating problem”, adding: “We will make sure that we control our borders and we will always do it fairly and compassionately, because that is the right thing.”

But Enver Solomon, the chief executive of the Refugee Council, said: “People are not being supported with dignity, humanity and compassion.”

The Home Office has been contacted for comment.


Amelia Gentleman

The GuardianTramp

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