UK must ditch the hostile environment to avoid another Manston
Last week shone a light on the ugly truth at the heart of our immigration and asylum system.
The Manston centre, a facility in Kent for asylum processing, was exposed as dangerously overcrowded, housing up to 3,000 more people than is deemed safe, with adults and unaccompanied children detained far beyond the 24 hours they were supposed to be held. The site is guarded by untrained officers. Refugees are not given adequate access to clean clothes, places to sleep, or legal advice. Disease outbreaks further endanger people’s wellbeing after an already dangerous journey across the Channel.
Manston is not fit for purpose; it must be closed
The government’s own climate minister has admitted that Manston is in defiance of the law and a legal challenge has now been launched. The Home Office must act quickly to move people to safe accommodation, where they can access healthcare and legal advice.
But then what? Manston confronts us with the horrific reality of official policy; it is the literal embodiment of a consciously engineered “hostile environment”. Until that system is replaced, we will see more Manstons.
Across the globe we are living through climate catastrophe, rising political instability, and war – we should expect more people to seek refuge from violence and persecution. Instead, ministers have buried their heads in the sand, preferring to prioritise inflammatory rhetoric, focus on deterrence, and offer unrealistic promises to stop small boat crossings.
There will always be people who cross the Channel irregularly simply because they have no other option. It is dishonest to claim otherwise. The only way to prevent dangerous journeys is to offer safe, legal routes to claim asylum here.
That means revoking the cruel Nationalities and Borders Act and putting an end to the Rwanda plan. By criminalising methods of entry, the United Kingdom is washing its hands of its international obligations. If, as the government argues, an asylum claim is inadmissible because someone has travelled through a safe country – such as France – then most people will simply not be able to claim asylum in the UK. It undermines the entire international asylum system.
Those seeking asylum come to the UK for many reasons. They may speak English, have cultural and community links, or family ties here, particularly in the case of many former British colonies. One of the saddest stories that emerged this week was that of a man who recognised his nephew and niece from a photo on a newspaper frontpage, waving through the Manston facility’s barbed wire fence. Imagine the horror he must have felt, and how easy it could have been to enable these young children to be in a safe and loving home instead of suffering in a dangerous camp.
Refugees routinely have their phones taken away from them, so the man had no idea his relatives were there; they had no way of contacting him. How many more people are stuck in hotels and temporary accommodation, denied the right to reunite with family members?
We need a long-term plan to end the chronic overcrowding, inhumane conditions and in this case, illegal long-term detention. The government must work closely and transparently with support organisations, health care providers and legal specialists to ensure immigration facilities operate lawfully and people receive the help they are entitled to.
And we must offer support to those being failed under existing schemes. Thousands of Afghan refugees who came here last summer are still in unsuitable hotels, waiting to be placed in permanent housing. Ukrainian refugees face mass homelessness once their six-months placement through the Homes for Ukraine scheme runs out.
It is time for the government to face reality. Manston is not fit for purpose; it must be closed. And while temporary and emergency accommodation should be found for residents, the focus must be on developing a long-term strategy for providing secure, safe housing for those claiming asylum in the UK.
Priority must also be given to family reunification, the quickest and easiest way to take some people out of the system. But most of all we need a fundamental rethink of approach: it’s time to overhaul the UK’s cruel and broken asylum system and build one that places safety and dignity at its centre.
Olivia Blake is the Labour MP for Sheffield Hallam.
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