Revelations about human rights abuses at Manston underscore the UK’s colonial immigration regime

A picture of refugees behind railings at Manston detention centre
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A Freedom of Information (FOI) request has revealed that the Home Office ignored warnings over the Manston refugee detention centre. Specifically, the local council had told the Home Office it had concerns over conditions at the centre in Kent relating to the health of detainees. Yet the Tory government ignored the council’s warnings, leading to a man’s death. However, while shocking, this is unsurprising given that our entire immigration system has its roots in colonialism.

Manston: disease and death

As the Canary previously reported, the Manston detention centre encapsulates the Home Office’s racist and inhumane approach to refugees. In late 2022, it was holding around 4,000 people – when the Home Office only designed it to accommodate 1,600. The Canary‘s Sophia Purdy-Moore noted that:

The Home Office is only supposed to hold people on the site for up to 24 hours. However, a prison watchdog warned that authorities are detaining people on the site for a much longer period, without beds, proper healthcare, or access to fresh air and exercise. The watchdog noted reports of cases of contagious diseases such as scabies, diphtheria and MRSA within the centre.

One man, Hussein Haseeb Ahmed, eventually died after becoming ill with diphtheria at Manston. At the time, the Home Office denied refugees were catching it at the centre. We now know the opposite is true – and moreover, that the council warned the Home Office something like this could happen.

Home Office: ignoring warnings

The Guardian reported that it had obtained FOIs from Thanet district council. They revealed that the council’s public health officials repeatedly contacted the Home Office with concerns over Manston. Specifically, the Guardian reported that:

  • Handwashing was advised as a key infection control measure but there was a shortage of sinks and access to running water and some toilets had no handwashing facilities at all.
  • Some toilets were blocked and overflowing with excrement.
  • The chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, became involved in the crisis and ordered UKHSA officials to produce a rapid assessment of infectious disease risk on the site.
  • [There was] confusion surrounding the release of people from Manston who may have had infectious conditions.

The FOIs also showed that the Home Office’s claim that refugees were bringing diphtheria with them to Manston was probably not true. Officials said a “small number” of cases were likely to have been transmitted in the UK – that is, at Manston. Crucially, the Guardian also noted that:

A risk assessment rated the risk of gastrointestinal disease, measles, diphtheria, scabies and other skin diseases as “very high”.

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Thanet district council raised all its concerns with the Home Office before Hussein died on 19 November. Yet the Home Office failed to act. Meanwhile, all this comes as the Independent and human rights organisation Liberty released an investigation into conditions at Manston.

Human rights abuses?

The investigation found that whistleblowing staff at the site reported:

  • Thousands of people sleeping on mats on the floor inside a makeshift marquee while being held for indefinite periods with nothing to do
  • Incidents of detainees being pinned to the ground and beaten after hitting their heads against a wall
  • Migrants being forcibly restrained after asking for food
  • A man injured in a fight receiving “unacceptable” medical care because it was assumed he was “faking it”

The sheer level of human rights abuses at Manston perpetrated by the Home Office is shocking – but not surprising. As Purdy-Moore wrote last year:

This goes beyond Manston. This is about challenging the entire inhumane border regime which surveils, polices, detains, deports and dehumanises people seeking safety in the UK and globally.

However, this is also goes beyond the border regimes of states.

Colonialism: alive and well in the UK

Governments like the UK’s have an approach to refugees and borders that is inherently colonialist – and laws surrounding immigration have their roots in Britain’s colonial history. Those in power and, by default, society more broadly, view foreign nationals arriving in the UK as lesser human beings – barely even guests, treated with greater contempt than animals. As academic Nadine El-Enany wrote, the very fact that refugees have to ask permission to stay in the UK via our legal system sums up this colonial mindset:

The traditional acceptance of legal categories as defined in international and domestic law… has the effect of concealing law’s role in producing racialised subjects and racial violence. It further impedes an understanding of law as racial violence.

Moreover, El-Enany noted that:

Legal status does not alter the way in which racialised people are cast in white spaces as undeserving guests, outsiders or intruders – as here today but always potentially gone tomorrow. Immigration law is, after all, the prop used to teach white British citizens that what Britain plundered from its colonies is theirs and theirs alone. Understanding that immigration law is an extension of colonialism enables us to question Britain’s claim to being a legitimately bordered, sovereign nation-state.

Manston encapsulates this attitude – where the state persecutes refugees without recourse, and the staff at the centre then follow its lead. This pervades government institutions and society more broadly – and it will not change overnight. The sad yet damning likelihood is that another Manston is on the cards, somewhere in the UK.

Featured image via Sky News – YouTube

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