Chaos and Overcrowding At Manston: Why Is There A Migration Crisis In The UK?

The dire situation at a migrant processing centre in Kent has thrown a spotlight on the flaws in the UK's immigration system.
Photo: Getty Image

Just a few weeks ago, most of the public would not have heard of the Manston migrant processing centre in Kent. Now, this disused former airfield dominates the headlines.

A crisis has unfolded at the centre following reports that thousands of people are being detained in squalid and cramped conditions that have been likened to an out-of-control prison.

The situation has prompted fierce questioning as to why the UK’s asylum system appears unable to cope.

While the government lays the blame firmly at the door of the large number of people arriving in the UK, experts believe that changes to the UK’s immigration system post-Brexit may also be partly responsible.

HuffPost UK takes a look at why the UK is in the grip of a migration crisis.

What is happening at Manston?

Manston is one of several processing centres where migrants are held while they undergo security and identity checks.

Under the normal process, those arriving at Manston should not stay there for longer than 24 hours.

But as increasing numbers arrive in the UK in small boats across the Channel from France, the more difficult it has become to process their claims.

At the worst point in the crisis, around 4,000 people were thought to be held at the facility — significantly more than the 1,600 it was designed to hold.

The overcrowded conditions have seen people sleep in marquees for up to 32 days and on mats on the floor. There have been outbreaks of diseases including MRSA, scabies and diphtheria.

People pictured at the Manston processing centre in Kent.
People pictured at the Manston processing centre in Kent.
Gareth Fuller - PA Images via Getty Images

The grim conditions were further laid bare in a letter written by a young girl held at the facility. In it she likened the conditions at Manston to a “prison” and pleaded with the outside world to offer held to the pregnant women and sick people inside.

The government has stressed that the situation at Manston has now improved and that fewer people — 1,800 — remain at the centre.

But the government remains under intense pressure to come up with a long-term solution to the crisis.

On Saturday the Guardian reported that a trade union representing Border Force staff has joined a legal action against the home secretary, Suella Braverman, over the “horrendous, inhumane and dangerous” conditions at Manston.

Why is the home secretary being criticised?

Braverman has come under intense pressure for her response to the migrant crisis.

First, it is alleged she chose not to book additional hotel space to accommodate migrants. Local Tory MP Roger Gale suggested this was a “deliberate” policy decision to deter people from coming to the UK — something the Home Office has strenuously denied.

“The home secretary has taken urgent decisions to alleviate issues at Manston and source alternative accommodation,” a spokesperson said. “Claims advice was deliberately ignored are completely baseless.

“It is right we look at all available options so decisions can be made based on the latest operational and legal advice.

“The number of people arriving in the UK via small boats has reached record levels, which has put our asylum system under incredible pressure and costs the British taxpayer millions of pounds a day.”

The home secretary has also been strongly criticised for her use of language in the immigration debate.

In parliament last week, she told MPs there was an “invasion on our southern coast” and singled out Albanian migrants as largely responsible.

Suella Braverman has been criticised for her use of language in the immigration debate.
Suella Braverman has been criticised for her use of language in the immigration debate.
House of Commons - PA Images via Getty Images

Which people are crossing the Channel to get to the UK?

The global migration crisis, driven by factors such as war, poverty and climate change, has seen more people attempt to reach the UK by small boat via the Channel.

Nearly 40,000 people have arrived in the UK so far this year — the highest number since records began in 2018.

Recent Home Office data from January to June 2022 shows that the biggest number of migrants coming to the UK were from Albania, followed by Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Syria — where war has been a reality of life since the outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2010.

Concerns about people coming to the UK from Albania — deemed internationally to be a “safe” country — were raised by Dan O’Mahoney, the home office’s clandestine Channel threat commander.

He said there had been an “exponential rise” in the number of Albanians travelling to the UK.

“Two years ago, 50 Albanians arrived in the UK in small boats, last year it was 800 and this year so far it’s been 12,000 of which about 10,000 are single adult men,” he said.

“So the rise has been exponential.”

He claimed this was because Albanian criminal gangs have a “foothold” in northern France and are facilitating the small boat crossings.

However, the country’s own prime minister, Edi Rama, hit back at what he called the “scapegoating” of Albanians over “failed policies”.

Speaking on BBC’s Newsnight, Rama said: “I thought it came a point where it was impossible to not react because it was really an embarrassment for our civilisation to hear all kind of crazy words being thrown in the air like normality and ‘invasion’ was the peak.

“It’s about the climate that has been created, and it’s about finding scapegoats and blaming others.

“While it’s very obvious, even from Tirana, which is not so near to London, that it’s about failed policies, it’s not about Albanians or aliens or gangsters, but it’s about failed policies on borders and on crime.”

And while Albania is not considered a war-torn country, there are significant domestic problems such as poverty and trafficking that might incentivise people to seek refuge in the UK.

Why are people making the dangerous Channel crossing to the UK?

Of those that make the journey to the UK, many do so to seek refuge from persecution, to join family in the UK and because they have a better grasp of English than other European languages.

Charities and experts also say that many asylum seekers and refugees are forced to make the perilous journey in small boats across the Channel because legal routes to the UK, such as the Dubs scheme for unaccompanied minors in Europe, have closed.

Zehra Hasan, advocacy director at the joint council for the welfare of immigrants, told HuffPost UK it was “no surprise” that people were making the dangerous crossing from France.

“Over the past few years, this government have shut down the few safe routes to asylum that existed, like the Dubs scheme for unaccompanied children.

“They’ve failed to deliver on the resettlement programmes they promised, and from their heinous Rwanda plan to new prison-like asylum camps, they’ve repeatedly put headline-grabbing cruelty over people’s lives.”

She added: “We know this government can provide safe routes to refugees — they opened an online visa process for Ukrainians which the UK public has welcomed, and thousands of families have benefited from.

“So why are safe routes not open to others fleeing harm? These routes would help prevent perilous crossings, help protect refugee lives, and would allow people to more readily settle, work and rebuild their lives in our communities.”

Bethany Gardiner-Smith, the chief executive of Safe Passage UK, agrees.

She says a particular problem is that a refugee cannot claim asylum in the UK without being physically present here, hence why people are making the dangerous journey.

And she adds that there are “depressingly few safe ways” for a refugee to come to the UK to seek asylum.

What are the legal routes available for asylum seekers to come to the UK?

There are currently four main “safe and legal” routes for asylum seekers to come to the UK.

The first is a resettlement scheme run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Refugees can’t apply to the scheme and have to be selected by the UNHCR based on criteria around vulnerability and nationality.

According to Gardiner-Smith, just 550 people have been resettled in the UK under this scheme.

“It is not comparable to the scale of global crises that are driving people to leave their homes,” Gardiner-Smith says.

Then there are schemes for Ukrainian and Afghan refugees.

While the family and sponsorship schemes for Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion are “working well” — bringing nearly 200,000 people to the UK — Gardiner-Smith says comparable schemes for Afghans are “completely broken”.

“We have seen very few people brought safely to the UK under those schemes since the beginning of this year.

People are brought to safety at Dungeness beach by the Dungeness lifeboat following a small boat incident in the Channel.
People are brought to safety at Dungeness beach by the Dungeness lifeboat following a small boat incident in the Channel.
Gareth Fuller - PA Images via Getty Images

“Some of the most important pathways, such as resettlement for Afghan nationals, aren’t even up and running yet and this is more than 12 months after the fall of Kabul.

“I think it’s telling that we haven’t seen any cases of Ukrainians having to take small boats to travel to the UK — and that’s because there are more generous schemes in place.”

The remaining legal routes are the Hong Kong British National Overseas scheme which has granted visas to 97,000 Honk Kongers and the refugee family reunion scheme, under which people with humanitarian protection are allowed to bring their family to the UK.

How has the UK’s immigration system changed post-Brexit?

A key change to the UK’s immigration system after the 2016 referendum was that it no longer participated in the responsibility-sharing mechanism known as the Dublin regulation.

The scheme meant that people with family in the UK would be safely transferred here.

“Now that we are no longer part of that regulation — and that was the choice of the UK — that means that somebody who has family in the UK who arrives in Greece or in France no longer has an option to come safely to the UK.

“They have to travel irregularly and put their lives in the hands of smugglers,” Gardiner-Smith says.

The Nationality and Borders Act introduced by former home secretary Priti Patel has also fundamentally changed the way the UK approaches asylum.

Previously, anyone entering the UK would have their asylum claim considered on its own merits and regardless of how the person arrived in the UK.

Under the act, there is now a two-tier system for refugees.

If the government deems that a person has come from a safe country or via an irregular route, they can be treated less favourably by the system. They could have restricted family reunion rights and less access to financial support, while their case can be reviewed after two and a half years.

Friction with France

Britain and France have been at loggerheards over who bears the greatest responsibility for the small boats crisis.

The UK has called on the French government to do more to stop people at its coastline and wants to send Border Force officials to patrol French beaches.

However, the French have argued that the nature of work in the UK is acting as a pull factor for migrants and that there should be more legal routes for people to claim asylum.

French police say they are preventing more crossings but that it is not feasible to to patrol the entire coastline.

There is also a disagreement over international maritime law, which the French says prevents its authorities from intervening and turning boats back once they are in the water.

What does the Home Office say?

Braverman has pledged to speed up the asylum system with a nationwide rollout of a pilot scheme to streamline the application process.

On Sunday, the home secretary announced that an eight-week trial in Leeds doubled the average number of claims processed and reduced the time asylum seekers wait for a first interview by 40%.

Braverman said the scheme will be extended to deal with 100,000 people awaiting a decision across the UK.

The Home Office has said it is also responding to the crisis at Manson by increasing the number of caseworkers from 597 to more than 1,000, with a further 500 staff to be taken on by March 2023.

It said it has improved staff turnover by 30% by introducing a retention allowance and has streamlined process through digitisation set to be operational UK-wide by May 2023.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The UK has a proud history of providing protection for those who genuinely need it through our safe and legal routes, recently welcoming hundreds of thousands of people from Hong Kong, Afghanistan and Ukraine.

“We are using every tool at our disposal to deter illegal migration, disrupt the business model of people smugglers and relocate to Rwanda, those with no right to be in the UK.”


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