West of Ramsgate, a Kent seaside town that was a favourite among Victorian holidaymakers, lies the village of Manston. It has a pétanque court and a modest war memorial on a patch of green across the road from the Jolly Farmer pub. The pub now closes on Mondays and Tuesdays. The post office opposite is no longer open.
In 2014 Manston airport – the former RAF base that dominates the landscape – closed too, which has long been a lightning rod for local frustration. However, there is activity at the site again: an estimated 4,000 migrants are stuffed into a facility designed to process just 1,000 people at a time.
This is a short-stay centre, where it’s supposed to take a maximum of 24 hours for migrants to undergo checks, before being moved on to an immigration detention centre or other accommodation.
Instead, the conditions at Manston have deteriorated. One family from Afghanistan slept on the mats of a marquee for 32 days. Diphtheria and MRSA outbreaks have been reported. There are fire risks. Children from within the facility have been heard shouting “we need your help” and “freedom”.
Workers have reported days when the facility has run out of food and drinking water for residents. There are too many people for adequate cleaning and laundry to take place, and condensation within the marquees is leading to mould and bacteria growth.
David Neal, the UK chief immigration inspector, told MPs last week that the “wretched” conditions had left him “speechless”, and called it a “really dangerous” situation. Roger Gale, MP for the area, has described “a breach of humane conditions”. He accused the Home Office of a “deliberate” decision not to find hotel space for the asylum seekers stuck at Manston: a “car crash” that has now led to overcrowding.
While he said he was unsure whether the fault lay with the current Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, or her predecessor, Priti Patel, Braverman is facing allegations that she failed to approve hotel transfers.
[See also: Inside the UK hotel housing 150 refugees]
The context of this, the latest row surrounding the Home Secretary, is political. Conservative MPs have been enraged by hotels in their constituencies being used or earmarked as holding pens for migrants. The Tory MP for the Red Wall seat of Ashfield in Nottinghamshire, Lee Anderson, said he was “struggling to look my constituents in the eye” when more than £6m a day is spent on asylum seeker hotel costs.
“Small boats”, as the issue is now known, is a concern among a certain demographic of voters the Conservatives need to cling to. One Tory pollster described this contingent to me as the “working-class, white-van man who might not have been engaged with politics before voting Conservative in 2019, or Brexit in 2016”. As immigration is now higher than before the EU referendum, some Tory strategists fear a Ukip-style right-wing party popping up to attract these votes.
Even among liberal Tory MPs, there is a fear of local tensions should asylum seekers be moved en masse to their constituencies. This is not unfounded, given asylum seekers are not allowed to work: a nonsensical rule that creates local resentment (a “freeloader” perception) and vulnerability to unscrupulous employers – exacerbated by record Home Office processing delays.
A man petrol-bombed another asylum processing centre in Dover yesterday (30 October), before taking his own life. Those inside were transferred to Manston. While the details of this attack were not clear at the time of writing, there is an underbelly of cruelty towards Channel migrants on social media (language around “invasion” is often used – echoed by Braverman in the House of Commons on 31 October, when she referred to “the invasion on our southern coast”).
The rhetoric can be poisonous. Deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda was described by Braverman as her “dream” and “obsession”, while the Daily Telegraph front page on 31 October had the dehumanising line of “Migrants side by side in hotels with public”. Nigel Farage described the lifeboat charity RNLI as being a “taxi service” for illegal immigration; a phrase you sometimes now hear from members of the public.
Parts of the south coast, plus the places around Britain with the cheapest hotels to commandeer for asylum seekers, have high levels of deprivation, which only adds to the tensions.
Thanet, home to Manston, is Kent’s most deprived local authority. It has the highest youth unemployment rate in the south-east, with five neighbourhoods in the top 10 per cent of England’s most-deprived wards. In 2020 I visited one, Newington, a village that is a half-hour walk from the Manston asylum centre. I found locals using National Lottery funding to pay a London advertising agency for a rebrand, so sullied was its reputation.
All these calculations are at play among Tory MPs and ministers as they fail to address the Channel crossings humanely – or at all. A potential solution would be to open up safe and legal routes to the UK. At present, one can only seek asylum in this country by travelling here illegally: a catch-22 that means numbers crossing the Channel (which are at a record high) are very unlikely to fall. Ironically, an above-board humanitarian visa system would be best to end the thing politicians most want to go away: photos of people tumbling on to the beaches of Kent.