Independent review highlights the ‘insanitary and unacceptable’ conditions of Kent’s refugee holding centres

Aerial view of Manston detention centre for refugees
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A report by detention centre monitoring body the Independent Monitoring Boards (IMB) has underscored the inhumane treatment refugees faced at facilities in Kent. It described conditions at the Manston location as “insanitary and unacceptable”, and criticised a lack of provisions across all three of the county’s sites.

Manston centre: ‘insanitary and unacceptable’ conditions

The IMB published its report on three of Kent’s short-term holding facilities on 23 October. These locations hold asylum seekers for up to 24 hours after they reach the UK, though this can be lengthened by the secretary of state. The IMB’s report covered inspections made during 2022 in the Kent Intake Unit, Western Jet Foil, and Manston.

All three facilities have faced numerous condemnations and controversies. Manston in particular faced high-profile public condemnation in the latter half of 2022. This included a series of protests outside the facility. The outrage came after government decisions led to Manston housing more than 4000 people at one time. This is despite the facility being designed for a capacity of 1000-1600 individuals.

The IMB’s new report said that accommodation at Manston was unfit for those held there:

detained individuals were accommodated in marquees which we would describe as at best basic, at worst insanitary and unacceptable.

It went on the state that:

there were no proper sleeping facilities: there were no sleeping mats, and during monitoring visits in November we noted that some individuals were sleeping on flattened cardboard boxes, whilst others simply had a blanket…. During one monitoring visit, one set of these portaloos had overflowed and, due to torrential rain, the overflow had seeped under the wooden flooring of one of the marquees. On other occasions, the toilet and shower areas were wet underfoot and smelt.

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Moreover, refugees in Manston had to share clothing such as coats. This practice led the IMB to raise concerns over the “spread of infections such as scabies”.

The Guardian also reported in February that local authorities had also warned the Home Office of a series of public health incidents at Manston from September to November 2022. The IMB noted that even some staff at the facilities expressed such concerns.

However, the government’s slow response led to a public health crisis. Increasing cases of diseases led to an outbreak of diphtheria, with 50 cases recorded at Manston by the end of November. The disease appeared to have led to the death of detainee Hussein Haseeb Ahmed on 19 November that year.

‘Stale, unpleasant atmosphere’

Manston wasn’t the only facility that the IMB criticised, either. The body said refugees at Western Jet Foil and Kent Intake Unit also faced difficult conditions.

For example, some detainees at the Kent Intake Unit had to sleep on blankets on cold floors and benches. This was the result of the Home Office ordering the removal of the facility’s sleeping mats because they weren’t fire retardant. The IMB also said that some areas of the centre had a “stale, unpleasant atmosphere” due to a lack working shower facilities.

Meanwhile, IMB inspectors noted that Western Jet Foil also had “seemed to lack fresh air” for similar reasons. Significantly, it described this facility as the “least safe” of the three. The judgement was based on the high-profile racist petrol bomb attack on Western Jet Foil in October 2022. The attack also led to the evacuation of around 1000 refugees from Western Jet Foil to Manston. This exacerbated the latter’s existing problems.

The report also noted that, despite some attempts by staff, there were problems in providing those held at all three facilities with stimulation:

the IMB felt that the lack of stimulation for those being detained in marquees for extended periods led to frustration and in-fighting.

Part and parcel of our colonial outlook

Even whilst it was aware of the increasing problems at Manston, the government claimed the facility was “resourced and equipped” to process people. However, an HM Inspectorate of Prisons report on a visit way back in July 2022 – just 6 months after the centre opened – highlighted similar problems at Manston. Problems like people sleeping on benches and overcrowded facilities were present from the very beginning.

This isn’t a failure of the system, though – it’s working precisely as intended. Clare Moseley, who set up refugee aid group Care4Calais, wrote in October 2022 that the government chose to designate people arriving as ‘illegal immigrants’. In doing so, it intentionally fostered division and raised tensions. This political handwaving then let the government turn a blind eye to rapidly deteriorating living conditions.

The IMB’s report clearly underlined the government’s racist and colonial attitude towards refugees. This has only gotten worse since the period of the IMB’s report. Home secretary Suella Braverman went so far as to claim in September 2023 that “nobody” crossing the Channel is a refugee. But the fact is that shouldn’t even matter – all people are deserving of basic dignity and respect, no matter how they arrived on UK shores. 

Featured image via Sky News/YouTube

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