People taken from Manston immigration holding centre have described their dismay at being deposited late at night in central London, without accommodation, appropriate clothing or money.
Amid growing controversy over the circumstances in which large numbers of people were bussed out of the acutely overcrowded camp, the Home Office has insisted that it only released asylum seekers who told staff that they had family or friends they could stay with.
But two people from Afghanistan told the Guardian that they were brought to London without having a clear idea of where they could stay. They describe scenes of rushed confusion as staff ushered them on to buses at the holding centre, before they were abandoned at Victoria railway station.
Their words can be disclosed hours after the home secretary, Suella Braverman, visited the centre near Ramsgate on Thursday, amid calls for her to consider her position over conditions at the camp.
Lawyers on behalf of the charity Detention Action and a woman held at Manston have sent an urgent pre-action letter to the Home Office. It is the first action against the home secretary for “the unlawful treatment of people held at the facility”.
In a further development, Braverman is facing demands from the London mayor, Sadiq Khan, to launch an urgent review of how dozens of people have been abandoned in the capital.
A young asylum seeker from Afghanistan was among the group of 11 people left on the street outside Victoria station on Tuesday evening. He said he had told Home Office staff during an interview before leaving the camp that he had no relatives or acquaintances in the UK.
“They asked me if I had any friends or family and I replied I had no one in England,” he said. Later he was asked by officials what city he would like to go to, and he said he would like to go to London, assuming that accommodation would be provided for him.
He was among a group of about 40 people taken by bus to central London on Tuesday. Most of them were able to make their way to stay with families, but some were left on the street outside the station, in flip-flops and wearing blankets to keep warm, until they were helped by volunteers from Under One Sky, which delivers food to homeless people on the streets of central London.
The young man, who asked not to be named, said he asked the bus driver where he should go as they arrived at Victoria station. “I thought there was going to be a hotel for us. He said: ‘Go anywhere you want to go, it’s not my responsibility.’ I told the driver I don’t have any address or any relatives. He said: ‘I can’t do anything for you.’”
The asylum seeker said he was 15, but had been age-assessed by the Home Office during the 25 days he was at the Manston immigration holding centre and registered as 20. He said he had been alarmed to find himself in London with nowhere to stay.
“I was very scared. I hadn’t eaten anything. It was almost 12 o’clock at night and we were left by the road. There were a lot of us on the bus who didn’t have any family or friends to stay with,” he said.
Volunteers from Under One Sky contacted the Home Office and the 11 asylum seekers without anywhere to stay were later picked up by a taxi and taken to a hotel in Norwich.
He said Home Office staff had not returned his belongings to him before he left the camp, and so he was without his mobile phone and had been unable to contact his family for about a month since leaving France and crossing by boat to the UK. He said he thought his parents would be very worried about him.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The welfare of those in our care is of the utmost importance and asylum seekers are only released from Manston when we have assurances that they have accommodation to go to. Any suggestion otherwise is wrong. We worked at pace to find accommodation for the individuals as soon as we were notified, and they are now being supported.”
But a second asylum seeker, also from Afghanistan, said there had been about 15 people on a bus sent from Manston to London on Saturday evening who had also had nowhere to stay.
He said he thought some asylum seekers may have been confused during the rushed process of removing people from Manston. During a formal interview – conducted through a translator – with Home Office staff last week he was asked if he had family or friends with whom he could stay.
“I said I had the phone number of a friend in London. Early on Saturday they came to my tent and called out the number on my wristband and I was told to get on the bus to London,” he said. There were no translators on hand as people got on the bus, and some people were asking if they were being taken to a hotel. “They said yes yes, but maybe they didn’t understand what we were asking,” the asylum seeker said.
The 20-year-old former police officer, who also asked not to be named, had worked with international forces in Afghanistan before the Taliban returned to power. He said he had left the country after his parents were killed by the Taliban last year.
“I was shocked to be left without help. I was cold. I was hungry and I was wondering how to sort it out,” he said. He had no working phone, and asked a bystander to help him to call a friend, who came to collect him. He said about 15 people on the bus had nowhere to go, and were planning to spend the night in Victoria coach station.
Conditions at Manston had been very difficult while he was there. “There were about 170 or 180 people sleeping in one tent; there were no beds, we slept on the floor,” he said. He and many others in his tent had picked up an itchy rash in the days before he was bussed to London; he said this might have been the result of poor hygiene in the camp.
“There were three toilets, which were very dirty. There were two showers, but one was not working, so it was difficult to have a shower, with so many people. There was no laundry and I couldn’t wash the clothes I was wearing for the week and a half that I was there. Most people had bad itching on their bodies.”
He is currently sleeping on the floor of the room a friend rents in a house. “I am happy to be in England. I feel safe here. But I don’t know how long I can live on the floor of my friend’s room,” he said.