This is what I saw inside the notorious Manston asylum centre

  • First published in : Visit Website
  • First published on: 11th Nov 2022

Last week I wrote about the outcry over the conditions in which asylum seekers were being kept at the Manston Asylum facility in Kent. This week I went to see for myself. The visit was organised by Westminster’s Home Affairs Committee, and I was invited along as Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. My SNP colleagues Stuart McDonald MP and Anum Qaisar MP were also on the visit. Unlike Suella Braverman we travelled by train and minibus not Chinook helicopter.

The site at Manston is a former RAF base dating back to the First World War. It is now a facility designed to put new arrivals through the asylum assessment process before they are moved on to hotel accommodation or, in some cases, immigration detention prior to removal. No one should really be there for more than 24 hours, and it is designed to deal with a maximum of 1600 people at a time. But as is now well known it has ended up housing around 4,000 people at a time with some of them being there as long as 28 days. When we arrived on Tuesday morning its population had been reduced again to about 1,500 but we were told that officials expect it to get very busy and overcrowded again soon.

As we entered the camp, we could see tents surrounded by fences with disconsolate looking young men wrapped in blankets standing around on small patches of asphalt outside the tents afforded for the taking of fresh air. Bags of discarded clothing and bedding awaiting removal lie around everywhere. We were taken to see the processing facilities people are taken through on arrival. These are pretty rudimentary but there are refreshment facilities and other basic needs are catered for. We were pleased to see notices on the wall advising of the right to legal advice and how to access it. However, they could do with being bigger and in languages other than English. Processing can be hampered by the fact that Brexit means the UK no longer has access to EURODAC, the EU’s multinational biometric data base which contains the fingerprints of all asylum applicants from each EU member state and people apprehended in irregular border crossings.

Next we were taken to what was described as the “family marquee’. Inside a large tent we found several young couples with children. There were 166 children in total in the camp the day we visited. The adults were mainly seated on makeshift seating or lying on the floor looking depressed and unhappy while the children ran around. Some of the children pulled at my coat telling me their names and that they wanted to go to school. One of their fathers had a little English and explained that all the families in the room were Iraqi Kurds. Some had been in the marquee for 11 or 13 days. There is nothing for them to do and only a small area with fake grass on asphalt for them to take fresh air. There are no exercise facilities. At night they sleep on thin mattresses of the sort normally supplied to those in police custody. There are basic toilet and shower facilities which appeared reasonably clean.

It was hard to move on from this tent. As visitors to the site, we had been issued with the same high visibility jackets worn by staff and therefore had an official air. Naturally the families there thought we might be able to help them. I tried to explain our role as parliamentarians, but I am not sure if they understood. The adults and some of the children were visibly distressed.

From there we moved on to what we were told was better quality hotel style accommodation in a building which had formally accommodated the officers mess. A door opened to reveal a young couple in a stuffy bedroom with very basic furniture. The wife was weeping. With broken English we understood they too were Iraqi Kurds and had been there for 28 days. Their two little girls aged 4 and 5 were outside playing. Their mum told me they have nits and showed me the treatment for it she had obtained from the medical centre. Her husband indicated that he is very concerned for her mental health. She tugged at my arm pleading for me to help her. It was very upsetting. We were advised that it is more difficult to move families on than single men because of the challenge of finding hotel rooms large enough to accommodate family groups or a number of rooms together to afford separate accommodation for older male and female children.

I was impressed by the staff I met. I believe they are trying to do their best in very difficult circumstances. I was particularly impressed by the medics headed up by an expert in Accident and Emergency medicine. His account of the state of some of the refugees was harrowing. He told me how many are covered in skin pustules after weeks of sleeping rough and that some tested positive for Diphtheria and MRSA when swabbed. There are worries that public health measures may require to be taken in due course.  

I was struck by the fact that despite all the scare stories about Albanian ‘economic migrants”, the families who we met were all Iraqi Kurds. The Kurds remain a stateless nation. Britain has occupied Iraq and Kurdistan twice in the last 100 years. We have been happy to use their services as allies to fight against Saddam Hussein and ISIS/Daesh and as interpreters in war zones. In turn they have been targeted as an ethnic group by despotic regimes. I think it is fair to say we owe them a debt of gratitude.

It was particularly fitting that we were accompanied on our visit by Alf Dubs, the Labour Peer. Alf was born in Prague in 1932 and at the age of 6 was one of over 600 mainly Jewish children evacuated to England on the kindertransport. He has had a distinguished career in public life. Elected as a Labour MP in 1979 he went on to be director of the Refugee Council and was made a life peer in 2004. At the age of 89 he continues to be active in the House of Lords particularly in the cause of child refugees. His “Dubs Amendment” to the 2016 Immigration Act gathered cross party support and was designed to ensure that unaccompanied refugee children in Europe could be reunited with family members in the UK. Ultimately it was dishonoured by the Johnson government who voted down attempts to guarantee continued family reunion in the UK for such children after Brexit.

As we remember our war dead this Remembrance Day, we need to remember the kind of world that those who died in World War Two were fighting for. The kind of world for which brave RAF pilots flying from Manston during the Battle of Britain gave their lives to save these islands from Nazi invasion. I believe it was the kind of world typified by politicians like Alf Dubs, not Suella Braverman. It was not a world where asylum seeking families displaced by the aftermath of a war in which the British government was fully embroiled should be reduced to sleeping on the floors of improvised refugee camps on British soil for weeks on end.  

Joanna Cherry KC MP

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