‘You walked in and your heart sank’: the shocking inside story of Manston detention centre
In late September last year, a Home Office employee walked into a newly opened section of the Manston short-term holding facility in Kent and realised that conditions there were spiralling out of control: “It had got way beyond what was ethical and humane.”
The site, a collection of marquees in the grounds of a former army barracks near a disused airport, was overcrowded, and staff were improvising increasingly unsuitable makeshift expansions. “There were people who’d been sleeping on a mat on the floor of a marquee for 20 days. We’d run out of space, so we were opening old bits of the site. They’d put some mats on the floor of the gym – a really old building. It looked like it was about to fall down. None of it had been set up with decent hygiene facilities, bedding or anything. You walked in and your heart just sank. I had a feeling of: ‘Oh my God, what have we got into here?’” says the official, who asked not to be identified.
“I saw people lying on opened-up cardboard boxes,” the employee recalls, briefly resting their head in their hands, as they speak for the first time about life inside the camp. The civil servant reported their concern to superiors in London. Some families had been there for nine nights, shut inside tents without access to fresh air: “It was pretty awful to see.”
Last September, few people had heard of Manston, where a holding facility only opened in January 2022. In a remote part of Kent, three miles inland from Ramsgate, it is hidden from public view, unless you happen to be visiting the nearby RAF museum or driving to the new gastropub, the Jolly Farmer, up the road. This is strongly pro-Brexit territory; 64% of voters here voted to leave. When Nigel Farage stood as Ukip candidate for South Thanet in 2015, he campaigned for the abandoned airport to be reopened; he lost to Craig Mackinlay, a founding member of Ukip who had defected to the Conservatives. The airport remains closed.
For months, politicians’ attention had been elsewhere – absorbed by the collapse of a government, leadership contests, the death of the Queen. But inside the Home Office alarm bells were ringing. Within weeks, the site would balloon from a temporary facility, designed to accommodate 1,000 to 1,600 people who had arrived on small boats for no more than 24 hours while preliminary checks were made, into a vast detention centre, much bigger than Britain’s largest super-prison, holding more than 4,000 people. Hundreds appear to have been illegally detained for well beyond the 24-hour limit, some for as long as 33 days. Guards had to be rapidly sourced from private security firms, some without the usual levels of training, more wedding marquees were rented and erected, but conditions barely improved. Disease spread, violence erupted, and one person died.
The autumn crisis at Manston was a source of acute concern for migrant rights charities, but the situation was equally disastrous for the government. The story of what went wrong at Manston is not just a matter of bureaucratic, logistical incompetence, but it offers an insight into how thoroughly Britain’s asylum system is broken, and why Rishi Sunak’s much-repeated promise to stop small boats crossing the Channel is likely to fail.
4 OCTOBER 2022
“I would love to have a front page of the Telegraph with a plane taking off to Rwanda, that’s my dream, it’s my obsession,” the new home secretary Suella Braverman said at a fringe event at the Conservative party conference in answer to a question about small boats coming to the UK. Her reference to the £140m deal with Rwanda, conceived as a deterrent, and allowing Britain to remove people arriving by boat to Kigali for processing, annoyed some of those tasked with finding accommodation for the asylum seekers already here.
For years it had been impossible to get ministers to focus on the logistical challenges posed by the rising numbers of boats. Successive home secretaries were convinced that they could stop them, and consequently were disinclined to plan for how best to house those who did come. Under former home secretary Priti Patel, “the whole narrative was: we’re going to stop the boats. So you couldn’t have a rational conversation on the basis that the number of arrivals was going to increase and increase, and we needed to set up more infrastructure,” a second Home Office source says. For several years, policy focused instead on headline grabbing, but usually doomed, quick-fix solutions: mid-Channel pushback strategies, the appointment of a former royal marine to the strangely named role of clandestine Channel threat commander, and now the Rwanda deal.
I noticed some of the new arrivals had infections on their body – you could see signs of bleeding. We asked to be separated, but they didn’t listen
Attempts had been made to convert disused military sites like Linton-on-Ouse in North Yorkshire or former Pontins holiday camps into longer-term accommodation, but these had stalled amid opposition from local residents and planning problems. Instead, officials were relying on hotel rooms and the cost of this (about £5.6m a day in October 2022, with another £1.2m to house people brought from Afghanistan) had become politically explosive. Mention of hotels had become a dog-whistle for the far right’s anger about asylum.
Inside Manston, staff were preparing for the arrival of Home Office permanent secretary Matthew Rycroft who, concerned by reports from junior officials, was scheduled to drive down from London the next day. Little could be done to improve the situation inside the tents ahead of his visit. There were no beds to sleep on, and a shortage of bedding. Some tents had a few rows of airport seats, most were empty apart from thin sleeping mats. Two or three toilets and shower units had been installed at the end of the tents.
At the site, tensions were rising, according to a statement from the Prison Officers’ Association, whose staff had alerted their union to deteriorating conditions: “There have been days where the facility has run out of food and drinking water … Levels of bedding have become inadequate, laundry facilities are inadequate. Issues have been raised around high levels of condensation within the marquees which has led to mould and bacteria developing.”
Detention officers described the 24-hour limit on how long people should be held as now “purely aspirational”. The Home Office insisted that the situation was under control: “It is untrue to suggest there has been a lack of food and water. We provide for all the basic needs of people who will have arrived tired, cold, in wet clothing and who may not have eaten.”
Internally it had become clear that the key problem was, in typically ugly Home Office language more appropriate for plumbing than for people seeking asylum, “outflow”. In September, 7,961 people had crossed the Channel, and there was an acute shortage of accommodation for them to move on to from Manston.
One night on a mat on the floor under a blanket – that’s fine. But not for any longer. Marquees for young men, that’s bad enough – but young children?
The small boats pattern of migration is a Covid-related phenomenon; people-smugglers turned to boats – previously considered too risky – when many lorries and trains abruptly stopped because of lockdown. Asylum seekers arriving in lorries would end up all over the country, and many were able to go to stay with relatives. People who arrive by boat are picked up by Border Force staff and immediately taken into detention. Housing them becomes the responsibility of the state. The question of why there was nowhere for the people in the short-term holding facility to go remains the key mystery at the heart of what went wrong at Manston.
Both Patel and Braverman have been accused by Home Office insiders of blocking the procurement of hotels. “Priti hated hotels with a passion,” one Home Office source says. Between June and August, she is understood to have told officials they should stop booking more rooms; as a result, throughout the summer staff used up the 2,000 places they had ringfenced for Manston “outflow”. Once it became obvious that more rooms were urgently needed, Patel gave permission for hotels to be booked again. “But it was too late. You can’t turn on hotels again overnight – you have to negotiate, a contractor needs to go in, prior bookings have to be cancelled. By that point we’d lost it and we never caught up again.” Patel has said this is “categorically untrue”. Braverman has also strongly denied ignoring legal advice urging the government to procure new hotel rooms in September because people were being held illegally.
After a painfully slow 14-month journey, Ferdows, a 27-year-old Afghan civil servant who fled Kabul in August 2021 when the Taliban seized control, finally arrived by boat near Dover, hoping to be reunited with his sister in London. He was taken directly to Manston.
As it became clear that the UK’s resettlement scheme was only going to be available to a small proportion of those who were in danger because they had worked with western organisations, increasing numbers of Afghans made the journey to claim asylum in Britain by boat; 8,633 people in 2022, a sixfold increase on 2021. Between October and December there were more Afghans travelling on small boats than any other nationality.
At Manston, Ferdows was “squeezed together, close like bricks in a wall, in a tent filled with between 100 and 200 people. Some of the other asylum seekers told us they had been there for a month. I noticed that some of the new arrivals had infections on their body – you could see signs of bleeding. We asked to be separated from the people with medical issues, but they didn’t listen,” he says, talking over Zoom, with the help of a translator.
The new arrivals’ clothes and shoes were placed in blue plastic bags and taken away; detainees were issued with a tracksuit and flip-flops. Phones were removed (ostensibly to allow staff to check for contact with people traffickers). “We wanted to call our families to tell them we were safe, but we weren’t allowed to make the call.”
Ferdows was exhausted and wanted to sleep. “The staff provided only one thin blanket, no mattress, no bed,” he says. The spartan conditions became a problem when a centre designed to house people for just 24 hours began to hold them for several weeks. “We took people’s phones – that’s a grim policy. If you’re there for 24 hours it’s OK, but for a longer period of time, it’s inhumane,” the Home Office source says. “Equally, one night on a mat on the floor under a blanket – that’s fine. But not for any longer. Marquees for young men, that’s bad enough, but young children?
“We knew people were staying longer. So really, you should have had proper places for people to sleep for a few nights and proper catering. So many of us were trying, but I don’t know if there was some kind of inertia.”
Ferdows says there were about 10 children with him in the tent, three from Afghanistan. “They really suffered. They were crying to be transferred to an appropriate place for minors, but they were ignored by the Interforce staff,” he says, referring to the private security contractors who had been brought in to help Home Office staff. Interforce’s website suggests that its people are usually hired to provide security at music festivals and shopping centres. Throughout the autumn, accounts emerged from underage asylum seekers who said they were put under pressure by officials doing screening checks to say they were adults, in some cases being told doing this would allow them to leave Manston more quickly. The Home Office has described these claims as unsubstantiated.
After 24 hours in a processing centre in Dover, Khaled, 38, a former shepherd, was taken by coach to Manston, still in the same damp clothes he had been wearing when he crossed the Channel. He had arrived from France with 55 people from Egypt, Kuwait, Iraq, Albania, Syria, Sudan and Algeria. “We were happy, but also tired and hungry after nine hours in a boat. We were a bit shocked by the welcome. The Interforce people said: ‘Why did you come? We are a small island. You’re not welcome here.’”
A Kuwaiti Bidoon, or stateless person, Khaled says he fled his country after a period of imprisonment for involvement in a demonstration in support of Bidoon rights. At Manston, “some people were put in plastic tents but we were moved into a wooden building. They said: ‘OK, find yourself a place.’ The floor was covered in garbage. They said: ‘You have to sleep on the floor.’ We found some old blankets which had been used by others who were there before us.”
He was given a wristband with a number – the first half, 814, denoted the boat he arrived in; the second, 19, the number he was given as he was counted out of the boat. (These numbers have been changed to avoid identifying him.) When food was distributed, he would be called up to the front by this number.
Although a public announcement wouldn’t come for several weeks, Braverman recruited an army general to deal with what insiders say she was now describing privately as a “crisis”. Lt Gen Stuart Skeates was seconded to the Home Office to “put in place the necessary command and control structure”. The decision to bring in the army triggered some eye-rolling from Whitehall insiders. “You don’t need the military, you just need someone who’s got experience of logistics and running big events. Look at Glastonbury – that works,” one official who visited the site that month says.
Previously, the Home Office had experimented with using the navy to stop the boats. “Ministers are obsessed with the idea that the military have the skill to sort this out,” another Home Office source says, adding that what the department really needed to focus on was clearing the huge bottleneck of unprocessed asylum claims, which stood then at 120,000 (it has since risen to 160,000). Not permitted to work, claimants are supported for years by the taxpayer, often in hotels, while they wait for a decision.
Signs that Home Office staff needed urgent help at Manston appeared in posts on the Interforce Facebook page throughout October, where the firm had been making increasingly attractive offers of employment. “Security Staff Wanted IMMEDIATE Starts. Location Dover and Manston,” one advertisement read. “12-hour shifts (£174 daily).” Don’t live nearby? Hotel accommodation is offered. Lack the relevant training? Free Security Industry Authority training provided.
Khaled says there was no hot water in his tent for about five days because guards had not replaced the gas canister. He wasn’t issued with a towel, and wore the same clothes for the first 15 days of his stay. “All of us were itching,” he says now.
They weren’t talking about days any more – they started talking about months. That destroyed us
He was dismayed at the lack of clarity about when they might be allowed to leave. “An immigration officer said, ‘If you have an address in the UK, you can go there. If you don’t have an address, then you have to stay here.’ They started by saying we’d be there seven days. They increased it to 12 days, then they weren’t talking about days any more – they started talking about months. That destroyed us.”
Because he spoke good English, he was often called on to translate for other detainees. “One man begged me to tell the guards that he had a pain in his stomach. Every time I went to them, they said: ‘We can’t take him to the doctor now; it’s only for an emergency.’ They kept saying no until the night he collapsed, vomiting blood. Then they took him in an ambulance.”
He was dismayed by the attitude of some of the guards. “One Interforce guard would give us the food and say: ‘Fuck you, go eat.’” Cutlery was rarely supplied. Another guard was irritated when he pointed out that two people had not received their food. “She said: ‘You are eating and sleeping like dogs. You do nothing. Why did you come here?’”
A Home Office spokesperson says: “We are not aware of any incidents of the alleged verbal abuse described.”
The assistant general secretary of the Prison Officers’ Association, Andy Baxter, visited Manston to investigate problems flagged by union members, concluding that the site represented “a humanitarian crisis on British soil”. He found the site split into two areas: one mostly staffed by the private security firm Mitie with officers trained in immigration and detention work; and the other, larger part mostly staffed by Interforce. The original site, with four tents, was struggling but coping, but the expanded site, which was running as many as 18, was “very grim indeed”.
Baxter couldn’t understand why there were no beds. “There were around 3,000 people there. No prison in Britain holds that many people. How can you detain that many people without a single bed?” he says. He was told by staff that in one 24-hour period, 17 instances of “use-of-force interventions”, when officers laid hands on detainees, were recorded; in a prison setting, he says, six incidents in that timeframe would raise alarms. Distracted by their own internal issues, the government response was just to “cross their fingers” and hope for bad weather to reduce crossing numbers, he says.
It is true that the government was very distracted. On 19 October, the Daily Star’s livestream of prime minister Liz Truss represented as a wilting lettuce was already into its fifth day and, in the afternoon, Braverman was forced out of her job amid a scandal over sending sensitive official information to a fellow MP from her personal email in breach of ministerial rules. Grant Shapps was appointed as her successor.
Newspapers reported outbreaks of diphtheria, norovirus and scabies in the camp. Arkan, 24, a Kurdish asylum seeker from Iran, a former farmhand, who arrived on 9 October, says he believes he was one of those who contracted diphtheria. “If I spoke or ate, I had a very sore throat. I asked to see a doctor, but they said they were only seeing families with children.” He hated not being allowed out of the tent. “I’m from a sunny country. I kept asking to be let out,” he says, with the help of an interpreter. The smell inside the tent of too many confined, unwashed people was difficult, and he found it hard to sleep when people were coughing, crying and shouting all night.
“When we asked how long we were going to be here, they would always point to another person and say: ‘Ask him, or ask the control team.’ One of the officials said, ‘If you go on moaning like this, you can go back to France.’ Mostly they didn’t talk to us unless we spoke to them.”
Around this time Ferdows, who had been in Manston for nearly two weeks, noticed his skin was itching. “I’d been wearing the same clothes they gave me when I arrived. My skin was beginning to bleed.” Detainees tried to wash their clothes in the showers, but there wasn’t always enough hot water.
When Ferdows told a guard he was worried about his skin, he was made to strip to his underpants so they could take a look. He was then taken to a small room and given E45 cream. “Later a guard took me outside the tent, and said, ‘You’re talking too much. Don’t complain or we’ll send you back to your country.’” More distressing than the itching, was the fact that he had not been allowed to call his family in Afghanistan to let them know he was safe. “They didn’t know if I was alive or dead.”
The chaos at Manston was echoed by the disarray in Westminster. Six days after being appointed as home secretary, Grant Shapps was reshuffled out of the Home Office by Rishi Sunak, who had become prime minister and decided to reappoint Suella Braverman.
No lawyers, visitors or charities have been allowed inside the site, so understanding what was unfolding there is often challenging. But one insight is provided by the use-of-force forms filled out by staff. Through freedom of information requests, Liberty Investigates has extracted 24 of these forms, which reveal incidents of staff using a thumb lock to restrain a detainee caught stealing food, of staff struggling to control the anger of detainees asking when they would be allowed to leave, and an account of paramedics “dillydallying” instead of rushing to help an injured detainee, apparently convinced he was faking his injuries. This evening at 7.15pm, an officer filled in a use-of-force form, noting that he responded to a radio appeal for urgent staff assistance in one of the tents. “There were approximately 50 migrants surrounding an Interforce officer. He pointed to a migrant and said he was throwing punches. The situation was very heated and loud.”
Against the backdrop of political pandemonium (there had been three prime ministers, four chancellors and three home secretaries in three months), the home affairs select committee, made up of cross-party MPs who scrutinise the work of the department, was taking an admirably forensic approach to establishing what was going wrong at the site. That morning, they pushed the clandestine Channel threat commander, Dan O’Mahoney, to acknowledge that people were being held illegally. He agreed that short-term holding facilities rules only allow for 24 hours’ detention and that there were “certainly people who have been there for much longer”. Asked whether compensation would have to be paid, he declined to comment.
We wanted to call our families. We wanted clean clothing, beds, basic medical treatment
David Neal, the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration, was less guarded. Fresh from a visit to Manston two days earlier, he said he was shocked by the lack of trained staff: “I was speechless. I am not normally speechless.” He concluded that the site was no longer safe. He estimated that trained security staff were running a part of the site holding about 400 people, while the rest of the site was being run by people with insufficient training. “Nearly 2,500 people not guarded by appropriately trained people is an extraordinary number. No prison in the country is that big.” He had met an Afghan family who had been living in a marquee for 32 days, sleeping on mats and blankets on the floor. “These are pretty wretched conditions.”
Frequently Ferdows felt obliged to stand up for the other detainees. He organised with about 35 other people in his tent to begin a silent hunger strike in the small fenced-off area outside, which guards had started to let them use a few days earlier. “We wanted to call our families. We wanted clean clothing, beds, basic medical treatment.” After a few hours, Border Force and Interforce staff pushed the men back inside the tent. Ferdows was handcuffed and taken to a cell van by an Interforce officer, where he was held for two hours. “They said they would deport me back to my country.” This was the second time he had been handcuffed and placed in the back of a van.
Around this time he saw an Interforce guard punch a Kurdish detainee inside the tent. “Everyone saw it. He was bleeding from his nose. They had to give him a clean shirt. The guards seemed inexperienced. They sat there, doing nothing.” Once an apparently suicidal asylum seeker was found trying to hang a rope in the bathroom. “He was taken away by guards.”
A Home Office spokesperson says: “We expect the highest standards of our contractors and if any complaints alleging abuse are made we will thoroughly investigate.” Ferdows says he did raise concerns with staff at Manston, but adds: “I don’t think they passed anything on.”
Amid rising public scrutiny, a concerted attempt appeared to have started to move people out of the camp, provided they could provide the address of a place they could go. At around 11pm, a coach dropped about 50 asylum seekers at London’s Victoria station. By midnight, some of them were still on the street, trying to work out where to go. “They had no money, and hadn’t even been told where they were. I showed them where to sit and get warm in the station,” an eyewitness said.
After 19 days in the camp, Ferdows was put on a separate bus, having given staff the address of his sister, an Afghan asylum seeker who was staying in a hotel. The decision to let him leave was unexpected. “It felt like it was done in a hurry. We were just dropped at a train station.” No one had checked whether or not he would be allowed to stay with his sister in the hotel, and when he arrived, he was turned away by the management. “It was very cold. I walked up and down the roads all night to keep warm.” He was homeless for three days. “I was crying on a bench on Croydon High Street, when someone told me the name of a charity where I could get help.” Eventually, he was assisted by the migrant support charity Praxis.
By now, incessant noise about illegal immigration had enraged far-right sympathisers. Andrew Leak, a 66-year-old admirer of English Defence League founder Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, AKA Tommy Robinson, drove 100 miles from his home in High Wycombe and threw several homemade petrol bombs at another Home Office asylum processing facility in Dover, before killing himself at a nearby petrol station. Approximately 700 detainees had to be transferred to Manston from the centre he attacked.
A group of students from Soas Detainee Support visited Manston to show solidarity with the detainees, and took photographs of men, women and children through the barbed wire fences. Ignoring guards’ instructions, some children crawled through a fence to tell the students they were from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, and shouted: “We need your help”.
Security staff were unhappy that protesters were taking pictures through the fence. ‘Guards were putting plastic sheeting up to obscure the view’
Benny Hunter, a migrant rights worker, took photos of the site that were used on the news, including one of a man pacing around a caged yard area with his young daughter. Officials had been briefing the media that the arrivals at Manston were mostly young male economic migrants from Albania (and it is true that the number of Albanians crossing the Channel had increased starkly), so these images of vulnerable families unsettled many. “Seeing the picture of the father and the child really woke people up,” Hunter says.
Security staff were unhappy that protesters were taking pictures through the fence. “Guards were putting plastic sheeting up over the outside fences to obscure the view,” Hunter says.
In a significant ramping up of the inflammatory rhetoric on asylum, Braverman announced in Westminster that the Conservative party was serious about stopping the “invasion on our southern coast”.
After a report in the Sunday Times, in which several sources claimed she ignored official warnings that people were being detained illegally at Manston, Braverman was repeatedly questioned by MPs. She admitted that “like the majority of British people” she was very concerned about the use of hotels, which were costing £6.8m a day, but insisted: “On no occasion did I block hotels or veto advice to procure extra and emergency accommodation.”
Some MPs seemed blithely indifferent to the poor conditions at the camp. Lee Anderson (then a backbencher, but now deputy chair of the Conservatives), asked: “Does the home secretary agree that if the accommodation is not good enough for them, they can get on a dinghy and go straight back to France?”
His comments were echoed later by policing minister Chris Philp, who said: “If people choose to enter a country illegally, and unnecessarily, it’s a bit of a cheek to then start complaining about the conditions.”
Another group of asylum seekers from Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan were driven by coach from Manston and left at Victoria station, without winter coats, many of them in flip-flops and wrapped in blankets to keep warm. Eleven were picked up late at night by a homelessness charity.
Some Kent residents, who had formed an informal Freedom from Manston protest group, held a vigil outside the site, calling for its closure. They had tried taking donations of clothes and toys to the camp’s entrance, but their offerings were usually refused by guards. However, not all the residents in the tiny nearby village were sympathetic. One protester noticed that his windscreen wiper had been snapped off his car while he was at the vigil. At the Jolly Farmer pub, a member of staff says customers tended not to talk about the huge refugee camp in case they upset fellow drinkers: “People can think you’re prejudiced if you say what you’re thinking.”
Braverman arrived on her first visit to Manston in a Chinook helicopter, a vehicle usually associated with humanitarian relief operations in war-torn regions. She did not speak to journalists, but immigration minister Robert Jenrick later seemed to acknowledge that the law had been broken, commenting: “I expect Manston will be returned to a well-functioning and legally compliant site very rapidly.” Four days later, Jenrick announced that the number of people in Manston had come down to 1,600.
Hussein Haseeb Ahmed, 31, a former hospital cleaner from northern Iraq, arrived at the camp. He was unable to contact relatives to let them know he had crossed the Channel safely. They were worried because he had complained of feeling unwell during his journey through Europe.
Ahmed became unwell and was taken to hospital, where he was given antibiotics and then discharged. The Independent Monitoring Board (a group of unpaid people appointed by the home secretary to monitor conditions in immigration detention centres) reported that over the past two months it had seen a “worrying and severe decline” in the conditions at Manston. Anne Owers, the group’s chair, noted that blankets were being used to fill the gaps between the joins of the tents to keep the wind and rain out. “A set of portable toilets had overflowed and, due to torrential rain, seeped under the wooden flooring of one of the marquees.” Children had been seen in inadequate clothing.
After Ahmed’s condition deteriorated, he was taken back to hospital where he later died. A Home Office spokesperson offered “heartfelt condolences”, but it would be 11 days before officials were able to trace his wife and seven-year-old daughter, Clara, to let them know. His family would later tell the Guardian that he had made the difficult decision to travel to the UK using smugglers because he wanted to go to “the best country in the world for human rights”; they had sold everything to raise £13,000 to pay for his journey.
Officials later said a PCR test confirmed he had diphtheria, although it was not clear whether this was the cause of his death. Diphtheria is so rare in the UK that most GPs are unlikely to have ever seen a case; almost every case in the England last year related to asylum seekers in Manston in October and November, according to the UK Health Security Agency. Some Kent residents from the Freedom from Manston group tied flowers to the boundary fence in his memory.
Ahmed’s mother, Parween, said she regretted his decision to leave Iraqi Kurdistan to find work in the UK. “No one should go, no matter how bad living here is.”
The Home Office announced the site had been cleared.
Braverman was called to appear before the home affairs select committee to explain what had gone wrong with a system that had managed to process just 4% of asylum claims submitted by people who arrived in small boats in 2021, and which had more than 122,000 cases stuck in a backlog, 40,000 of which had been waiting more than a year for a decision.
Diana Johnson, the committee’s Labour chair, asked: “Could you tell the committee how the Home Office got itself into this mess, with up to 4,000 people being detained at Manston? Whose fault is it?” Braverman declined to take responsibility, stating: “I will tell you who is at fault. It is the people who are breaking our rules, coming here illegally.”
The most interesting moment of the session came next, and is worth watching in full on YouTube. Conservative MP Tim Loughton said he wanted to do some role play with the home secretary. “I am a 16-year-old orphan from an east African country escaping a war zone and religious persecution, and I have a sibling legally in the United Kingdom at the moment,” he said. “What is a safe and legal route for me to come to the United Kingdom?”
Braverman: “We have an asylum system, and people can put in applications for asylum.”
Loughton: “How would I do that?”
Braverman: “If you are able to get to the UK, you are able to put in an application for asylum.”
Loughton: “I would only enter the UK illegally then, wouldn’t I?”
After some more questions and long pauses Braverman, defeated, said: “Let me invite our colleagues, if there is anything they want to add.”
It was a telling moment, revealing not only that the home secretary was shaky on the rules of the asylum system, but underlining that unless you come from Ukraine or, for a very small number of people, Afghanistan and Syria, there are essentially no safe and legal routes to the UK and risking your life on a small boat is the only option.
Before Christmas, ministers revealed that the law on short-term holding facilities such as Manston had been quietly rewritten. A new type of detention facility had been created that will allow the Home Office to hold new arrivals for up to 96 hours (or more in exceptional circumstances) without breaking the law. In December, the site once again began processing new arrivals.
Khaled and Arkan, who were both held for 21 days, are part of a class action of about 80 people represented by the law firm Duncan Lewis seeking damages for alleged false imprisonment; the group includes six families, a pregnant woman and a child with Down’s syndrome.
A Home Office spokesperson says the department recognises “the challenges faced last year at Manston” and has “a clear plan to deliver a safe, decent and legally compliant site”. This has included more access to medical facilities, greater oversight of the use of force and providing “a more appropriate environment” for those arrivals requiring exceptional detention for more than 24 hours. Sunak this month announced a £500m package to fund his pledge to stop small boats, much of which will go towards funding a detention centre in northern France.
Khaled, Arkan and Ferdows are all currently being housed in hotels, unable to work, study or begin rebuilding their lives until their asylum claims are processed. Khaled says it will take him a long time to forget his detention at Manston. “The people were very bad, the place was very bad. We were treated like animals.”
• Some names have been changed.