The Prison Officers Association (POA) says there is a ‘humanitarian crisis’ at the Manston asylum seekers processing site with infection outbreaks, people sleeping on carboard instead of mattresses inside marquees, tensions rising and claims of a very real prospect of the centre housing more than 5,000 people by this time next month in a facility intended for 1,000 – a figure denied by the Home Office.
Talking on a podcast POA Assistant General Secretary Andy Baxter says the original site was intended to provide short term facilities – 24 to 48 hours – for processing people who would then be moved to immigration removal centres or bailed into the community.
But people are now facing significantly longer periods in the centre due to the high numbers making small boat crossings. The site originally had four marquees and around 150 people per marquee were provided with roll out mattresses and bedding.
However, Mr Baxter says that during a two-day POA visit to the site they saw this has now been expanded to 22 marquees and people in those tents are sleeping on cardboard with a blanket on top of them.
Amongst the issues he highlighted were reported outbreaks of diphtheria, scabies and norovirus.
He said: “It’s a humanitarian crisis on British soil.”
He added that it is “a site of two halves,” with the original site struggling but coping but the expanded site “is very grim indeed.”
Mr Baxter said: “The initial plans were sound. The objective was to provide better facilities compared to the Tug Haven (in Dover) and the utilisation was impressive.”
He said the initial offering was a huge improvement on Tug Haven but then pressure on the site began to mount with the rising number of small boat crossing and, so, an increase in the amount of people needing to be processed, immigration removal centres becoming full and government cutting back on hotel use.
It has also been revealed during a Home Affairs Committee hearing on small boat Channel crossings that 96% of those apprehended using small boats to get into the UK last year are still waiting to have their claims processed. Of the remaining 4%, some 85% of claims were successful. So far this year 38,000 people have arrived in the UK via ‘irregular’ small boat routes with 8631 of those in August alone.
Problems are compounded by Manston having no person or organisation in overall charge, he said. Sections of the site and different tasks are looked after by ‘numerous agencies, contractors and military personnel’ with no central command, incident response system or control room.
He said: “The site should be under the control of someone with a detention or prison background.”
Mr Baxter said tensions are rising and in one 24 hour period 17 instances of ‘use of force interventions’ were recorded. In a prison setting six such incidents in that timeframe would raise red flags.
Mr Baxter said “Manston is the largest single site of detention in the UK, holding over 3000 people. There is no prison in the UK that accommodates that many people. The areas operated by our members are stretched to the limits, frustration is rising and the POA members on site are working flat out to keep the peace in their section of the operation. However tensions are starting to mount in other sections of the site.”
He said there are concerns that detainees could overpower staff and real concerns over staff welfare.
He said staff are ‘overstretched’ and there are health risks with “a facility as large as this with an unknown population, with unknown medical conditions.”
He said members at Manston were at the forefront of “a developing crisis” and “there isn’t a solution in sight.”
The military personnel on site currently are involved only in logistical tasks but Mr Baxter says he wouldn’t be surprised if military intervention was used in the case of a large-scale uprising.
He said staff were “fire-fighting” and were now facing the prospect of 5,000 people on site. He said: “We believe this time next month there will be over 5,000 people being held in this facility. Are we really saying 5,000 people will be housed in tents over a British winter?”
He added: “The majority of people on site are being held without warrant, they are simply being detained for making an ‘illegal’ crossing. There are huge potential legal implications for the government and the British taxpayer.”
The Home Affairs Committee heard that despite people expected to be at a short term holding facility for 24 hours the longest ‘stay’ was currently “around a month.”
Mr Baxter said the government response has simply been to ‘cross their fingers’ and hope for rough seas to reduce crossing numbers while being distracted by their own internal issues.
Branding the immigration system “an absolute shambles’ he said government needs to make a long term plan and provide decisions and leadership.
He added: “The solution could be to build a purpose-built immigration removal centre on site and hold people in safe decent conditions while their fate is decided.”
The Home Office has denied claims that 5,000 people will be held at the site and asked The Isle of Thanet News to remove claims made about Manston in the POA podcast saying they were “untrue.”
However, in response Mr Baxter said although 400 people have been moved out of the centre in the last week, although he does not know where to and thinks a push on bailing people may have taken place, it would take “two or three good days for crossings” and numbers would be pushed up again.
He added that bailing people came with “significant risk” and “current intelligence is that Albanian organised crime gangs are using small boat crossings to infiltrate criminal operators into the UK.”
He later added that a large number at the centre are single Albanian males. The issue of people from Albania coming into the UK on small boat crossings was also raised at the Home Affairs Committee. The committee heard two years ago the figure was 200, last year 800 and this year so far 12,000 of which 10,000 have been single, adult males.
Dan O’Mahoney, Clandestine Channel Threat Commander told the committee: “Albanian criminal gangs have gained a foothold in the north of France and have begun facilitating very large numbers of migrants.”
He told the committee he “didn’t recognise” the 5,000 people figure in response to a question from member Stuart McDonald but agreed around 3,000 people are currently at Manston and the issue was currently the “increasing difficulty of moving people out quickly.”
In response to the diphtheria outbreak the Home Office said: “We take the safety and welfare of those in our care extremely seriously and are working closely with health professionals and the UK Health Security Agency to ensure the instances are contained and to support the individuals affected.”
A Home Office spokesperson added: “The continued rise in dangerous small boat crossings is causing an unprecedented strain on our asylum system.
“Manston is resourced and equipped to process migrants securely and we will provide alternative accommodation as soon as possible.
“We urge anyone who is thinking about leaving a safe country and risking their lives at the hands of people smugglers to reconsider. Despite what they have been told, they will not be allowed to start a new life here.”