The government’s main asylum processing facility risks being overwhelmed by the tens of thousands of people expected to cross the Channel this year, according to a newly published report
A lack of staffing – combined with high absconding levels from hotels – means security and vulnerability risks might be missed.
On Thursday the Home Office released a report into the Manston and Western Jet Foil sites which had been carried out at the start of this year.
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David Neal, the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration, listed a litany of failures at the camps – although noted there had been some improvements since 2022 when there were outbreaks of diphtheria and people staying for over a month in temporary accommodation.
Despite Rishi Sunak’s pledge to “stop the boats” and the announcement of three ships and a set of ex-military facilities to hold people having asylum processes claimed, Mr Neal raised significant concerns the Manston facility in Kent would not be able to handle the expected number of people.
While the prime minister claimed the number of people arriving this year was down compared to last year, numbers tend to rise rapidly in latter parts of the year.
He said the capacity of the barges and camps announced recently will be “limited”.
“Worryingly, I have received no clear answer from senior officials or ministers as to where the tens of thousands of migrants expected this year will be accommodated,” he said in his summary.
Mr Neal said the facility “remains in danger of overcrowding if sufficient onward accommodation is not available – something that is beyond the control of those managing the site”.
Between 55,000 and 85,000 people are expected to cross the Channel, according to his report.
Image: Thousands of people were held at Manston last year ‘Inexcusably awful’ data gathering
He did note some improvements, including the fact meals were now more “culturally appropriate” and not “burger-van” style, but Mr Neal said the Home Office and associated agencies should not “succumb to complacency”.
The report stated it was hard to compare the situation during January and February when the most recent inspection took place to the pinch points last summer, when more than 4,000 people were being held at a facility designed to hold 1,600.
There are also plans for one area to be converted into a “mini A&E” alongside the current medical facilities – a triage room, a pharmacy, a resuscitation room and an on-site ambulance if needed.
One area highlighted as still being a vulnerability is the “inexcusably awful” gathering of data from those who arrive, with discrepancies in the number of people arriving reported by different bodies.
While previous reports had recommended the Home Office quadrupled the number of biometric recording stations to take data from arrivals, the government increased the number of stations from four to nine in that time.
The technology was also described as “end-of-life” and liable to break – the Home Office is trying to source replacements.
Image: The number of people arriving in the UK on small boats by month. Pic: Home Office ‘Security risks’ could be missed
Mr Neal did say he was “encouraged” by what he had seen in some aspects of the running of Manston – notably a move from “crisis response to a steady-state response”.
He said in the second half of 2022, “no migrants had left Manston without having their biometrics enrolled”.
He praised the fact that asylum screening interviews are now taking place at Manston – although only 20-30% of people going through get an interview before leaving due to a number of factors including a lack of staff, delays, blockages and failures of communication.
This, combined with issues in hotels, “could mean that vulnerability and/or security risks are not being detected and addressed”.
In terms of staffing, Mr Neal said the Home Office was struggling to attract recruits and also properly train them.
He said fewer than half of the people working at the sites had the “basic” DBS criminal check.
A lack of interpreters has led to security guards being used as translators, which Mr Neal said was “inappropriate if a migrant is sharing personal information”.
New safeguarding and vulnerability improvements had just been – or were about to be – put in place at the time of the January report.
When migrants arrive in the UK, they have their possessions placed into two blue bags – one for wet and one for dry belongings.
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What Manston looked like last year While the current system sees people stay with their possessions, Mr Neal noted there were “large numbers of these bags” dating from times of overcrowding still being kept at Manston – including people’s mobile phones.
Officers told the inspectors that, on quiet days, they do try and return the bags to hotels where people were sent in a move that should be “commended” – but the impact of someone being separated from their phone “should not be underestimated”.
Report ‘damning’, say Labour
As part of his response to the report being published, Mr Neal was scathing about the fact it was released more than eight weeks after being submitted – contrary to a “commitment” from the Home Office.
“In office calls to the home secretary and to the immigration minister late last year, I forcefully made the point that the effective suppression of my reports through publication delays was unacceptable.
“Out of the 28 reports released during my tenure, only one has been published on time.”
Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, branded the report “damning” – saying the “Conservatives’ appalling mishandling of the asylum system is putting both our border security and vulnerable individuals at risk”.
A Home Office spokesperson said they welcomed the report which shows “significant improvements” to the processing of migrants arriving by small boats at Western Jet Foil and Manston.
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The spokesperson added: “This report acknowledges the great work already done by our staff and recognises the positive changes made across a range of areas including infrastructure, welfare support, biometrics, health screening and communication with migrants.
“As part of our ongoing work to stop the boats, we have already taken action to address the report’s recommendations and we will continue to ensure there is sufficient onward accommodation to prevent overcrowding at Manston.”