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It's time the UK Government stops shirking its humanitarian responsibilities on Manston

  • First published in : Visit Website
  • First published on: 04th Nov 2022

Every day this week has brought a new horror story about the conditions in which asylum seekers are being housed at the Manston facility in Kent.

Around 4,000 people have been held for weeks in a facility designed to process rather than detain people. The centre has a capacity for 1,600 to stay for a maximum of 48 hours. People, including families with children, are sleeping for weeks on end on the floor of marquees designed for summer use with only kit mats and blankets, and sometimes squashed between rows of chairs. There are reports of detainees not allowed to go out into the fresh air despite some very lengthy stays. Detainees at the screening building were not allowed to use the toilets in private. There have been outbreaks of disease including scabies and diphtheria.

On Tuesday of this week, Her Majesty’s Inspector of Prisons identified a lack of child safeguarding measures with unaccompanied children being housed alongside unrelated adult men. In the light of reports of rape and sexual assault of teenage boys at other detention facilities this is very serious. The inspector also found scant attention being paid to other vulnerabilities, including physical and mental health-related disabilities – not a single disabled person or woman with a disclosed history of abuse or trafficking had been designated an adult at risk.  
Things reached a nadir when former detainees were found wandering the streets around Victoria bus station in London late on Tuesday night having been abandoned there because of yet another hapless Home Office cock up. It seems this is part of a pattern of desperate attempts by the Home Office to bus people out of Manston without proper planning as to where to take them. The abandoned men were inappropriately dressed, some with flip flops and blankets around them to keep warm. They had blisters on their hands and feet, and some were suffering from fungal infections. One man was in so much pain he could not sit or lie down. The men had crossed the channel three weeks ago and were a combination of Syrians, Iranians and Afghanis, all from countries wracked by war or division and human rights abuses. They deserved better when they came to the UK seeking sanctuary.

However, there was no contrition on show when Suella Braverman came to the chamber to answer MPs questions.  Few would have thought it possible that the Tories could find a more objectionable home secretary than Priti Patel, whose last outing at the despatch box was marked by her telling the opposition to “Shurrup”. However, in Suella Braverman she has been outdone. Ranting about illegal immigrants and describing what is happening as an “invasion” she seemed unconcerned about the potential effect her inflammatory language could have and unconcerned about the legalities of the situation.

When I reminded her that whilst it is not illegal to seek asylum, it is illegal to detain people without a proper basis in law and asked her whether she was ignoring legal advice, she ducked the question. However, the position is reasonably clear. There appears to be no lawful basis for the detention of individuals beyond 24 hours in holding rooms (or five days for holding facilities). Therefore, many individuals held at Manston have been unlawfully detained in terms of the domestic law of the UK. They could also claim for unlawful deprivation of liberty and inhuman and degrading treatment in breach of Articles 5 and 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The news that the Home Office is now facing a legal challenge over the conditions at Manson was inevitable.

So, what is to be done? As chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) I have written to the Home Secretary, together with the Chairs of the Home Affairs Committee (HAC), the Women and Equalities Committee and the Justice Committee to express our concern and to try to get some clarity on what what policies the Home Office has in place to: a) address these conditions in the short term, b) ensure that Manston does not face such overcrowding again in the medium and longer terms, c) reduce the number of small-boat arrivals and d) reduce as a matter of urgency the backlog in cases currently within the asylum system.

Next week I will visit the Manston facility as part of a delegation from the HAC and JCHR. I am very pleased that Alf Dubs, himself once a child refugee and now a well-respected campaigner for the rights of refugees is to be part of that delegation. We need to remember why people come to the UK seeking sanctuary. Our latest JCHR inquiry is on the human rights of asylum seekers. Last week we took evidence from expert witnesses on this very question. Here is what they told us.

Recent Refugee Council research shows that 91% of people crossing the channel in small boats came from 10 countries where we see human rights abuses. 80% of refugees across the world live in the global south. The vast majority of refugees, about 70%, live in neighbouring countries. Of the refugees who then travel onwards to Europe to seek safety, statistics for 2021 show that far more people go to Germany, France, Spain or Greece than the UK. The main reason why people come to the UK is because they have family or community connections here. We can all imagine that if we were forced to rebuild our lives elsewhere, the first place we would go is somewhere where we had family or community ties. A 2018 study found that more than half of more than 400 people in northern France who wanted to travel to England had a family member already in the UK.

Another reason why asylum seekers come to the UK is that they speak the language. English is the third most spoken language in the world; it tops the list of second languages spoken. It is also important to remember that Britain's colonial legacy is often why people from certain countries speak English. Most states where English is an official language are former territories of the British Empire.

Some people come to the UK because they have no choice; they have been trafficked or forced here by smugglers. Last year, at least 10,000 children and adults were trafficked to the UK and forced into exploitation or modern slavery. Contrary to Braverman’s claims, there is absolutely no evidence that people are gaming the system set up to tackle modern slavery.

As to why so many are now crossing the channel, we were told that the simple answer is that the UK Government are forcing people to make dangerous journeys across the channel, because there are no functioning safe legal routes.  At present people can only claim asylum once they are actually in the UK. What we need are better and fairer rules about family reunion for refugees and a way to enable people to be granted visas and entry clearance to come to the UK or to seek asylum while they are still abroad. This is what we have done for Ukrainians and that’s why there are none of them are among the small boat cohorts.

The United Kingdom has humanitarian responsibilities in what is a global crisis.  It’s time for the UK Government to stop shirking them. 

Joanna Cherry KC MP

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