Manston detention centre: why is the Government being threatened with legal action?

By Amer Zaman

on November 30, 2022

Read Time: 7 Minutes

Recent weeks have been extremely bruising ones for the debate around immigration and asylum in the UK. Having only been reappointed in her role on 25th October following the rise of Rishi Sunak to the position of UK Prime Minister, Home Secretary Suella Braverman has been swept up in fresh controversy surrounding conditions at the Manston migrant centre in Kent.

The situation culminated in early November in the Home Office being threatened with legal action by lawyers on behalf of charity Detention Action, which provides support for people in immigration detention and campaigns for reform. But what exactly has led to legal action being threatened, and how could the scandal continue to unfold in the weeks and months ahead?

What is immigration detention?

Immigration detention is the process by which the Home Office decides to detain a foreign national in order to resolve their immigration status.

Given that immigration detention is an administrative process instead of a civil court procedure, it is typically the responsibility of Home Office civil servants, rather than the courts, to decide whether a particular individual is detained. However, a decision to detain may arise from a court decision in relation to deportation.

If the decision is made to detain someone, policy reasons for this will typically include at least one of the following:

  • In order to remove the given individual from the UK
  • In order to establish the individual’s identity or the basis of their immigration or asylum claim
  • There is reason to believe they would abscond if released on bail
  • The individual’s release is not considered to be ‘conducive to the public good’

When is the Home Office able to detain someone?

At any point in a non-citizen’s immigration process, the Home Office has the administrative power to detain them. This means a person could theoretically be detained at any of the following stages of their immigration journey:

  • When they arrive in the UK
  • When they present themselves to an immigration office in the UK
  • During a check-in with immigration officials
  • Once a decision to remove the individual from the UK has been issued
  • After the individual has been arrested by a police officer
  • Following completion of a prison sentence

It is important to note that the reasons for a given individual being detained may change over the course of the period for which they are held. Immigration detention typically ends in one of two ways: the individual being removed from the UK, or released – the latter usually on immigration bail.

Legally, immigration detention is meant to be a last resort. Home Office policy and international law set out that “detention must be used sparingly, and for the shortest period necessary” (UK Visas and Immigration, 2016, para. 55.1.3).

Despite this, in the financial year 2021-22, the Home Office issued a record number of compensation payments for unlawful detention, amounting to approximately £13 million.

The background of the Manston controversy

‘Manston’ has become shorthand in recent weeks for the now-notorious migrant holding centre near Ramsgate in Kent. The facility, once a military base, opened as a processing centre in February 2022, in order to process the growing numbers of migrants crossing the English Channel in small boats to reach the UK.

However, there have been intensifying concerns over the past month that the centre has become overrun, with migrants being kept there for much longer than they are supposed to be, and suffering from poor conditions at the site.

The Home Office stated in late October that the Manston facility was meant to have between 1,000 and 1,600 people passing through it each day, with all necessary checks being completed within 24 hours. The department said the centre was successfully operating within these parameters for a “large part of” 2022.

Even as early as July, however, it was discovered as a consequence of an official inspection of the facility that detention times were often exceeding 24 hours – sometimes by a significant margin. Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, David Neal, visited the centre on 24th October, and he said there were 2,800 migrants at the site that day.

As of 31st October, approximately 4,000 migrants were present at the “overwhelmed” camp, according to local Conservative MP, Roger Gale.

A week later, immigration minister Robert Jenrick said to MPs that migrant numbers at the site had been successfully reduced to below 1,600.

What has been the Home Secretary’s role in the dispute over Manston?

A lack of apparent alternative accommodation for migrants has reportedly been among the factors causing migrants to be held for longer periods of time. The persistently high asylum backlog has also been cited as a potential factor; as of the end of June 2022, nearly 100,000 asylum claims were still waiting for the Home Office to make an initial decision.

On this backdrop, there has been anger over reports suggesting that the Home Secretary may have blocked the use of hotels or vetoed advice to procure additional and emergency accommodation – claims that Ms Braverman denied in a statement to MPs.

Reports indicated that Ms Braverman had been told weeks earlier that the Government’s failure to sign off on ways of immediately moving people to hotels or alternative accommodation was putting it in breach of statutory duties.

In early November, a minister appeared to concede that the Manston site was not operating legally. When asked whether he believed it was acceptable that asylum seekers were being detained at the centre in contravention of the law, climate minister Graham Stuart said to Sky News: “Obviously not. None of us are comfortable with it. We want it tackled, we want to get a grip, that’s exactly what the Home Secretary is focused on.”

What is the legal case against the Home Secretary over Manston?

Detention Action has said it is taking the Home Secretary to the High Court, where it intends to challenge what it describes as her “illegal treatment of people at the Manston facility”.

The charity called for donations, which – at the time of this article being written – had reached almost £9,000 of a £15,000 target on the CrowdJustice crowdfunding platform, with 23 days remaining.

The organisation said that it believed Ms Braverman had knowingly broken the law in her actions in relation to Manston, by:

  • Routinely holding people in detention for longer than was legally permitted
  • Failing to ensure the protection of children from harm
  • Forcing women and children to sleep alongside adult men who they did not know
  • Failing to provide access to legal advice for individuals detained at the centre
  • Exposing people to infectious diseases as a result of overcrowding and poor sanitation

The charity said that the initial £15,000 it was aiming to raise would allow it to cover the basic costs of bringing a legal challenge against the Home Secretary.

On 5th November, the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) – with a membership consisting largely of people working in UK government departments and other public bodies, including Home Office workers at Manston – announced that it was joining the legal action.

Why is there so much controversy around immigration detention in the UK?

According to the advocacy group and civil liberties organisation Liberty, the UK is the only European country that locks people up in immigration detention centres without release dates.

The organisation states that tens of thousands of people are subject to the “unjust, unnecessary” practice of immigration detention every year. Campaigners state that indefinite detention tears people away from their friends and family, is devastating to their mental health, and ruins lives.

For these reasons, Liberty has called for a strict 28-day time limit on immigration detention. The organisation has described this as a “first step” towards ending detention altogether, and replacing it with a “more human” approach of dealing with people in the community.

With around 24,500 people having entered immigration detention in the UK in 2021 – a rebound to levels seen prior to the COVID-19 pandemic – and the UK asylum and immigration system having long been a subject of great political sensitivity, it is clear that issues like the conditions faced by detained migrants will continue being points of considerable controversy.

How can Cranbrook Legal help with your immigration case?

If the issues touched on in this article are of direct concern to you or a loved one, our specialists in immigration law at Cranbrook Legal can help.

Our central London-based lawyers are highly skilled and experienced in handling a wide range of often very sensitive and complex immigration cases, including in relation to matters of asylum or overstaying. Even more importantly, we have a consistent track record of success, as a firm that focuses squarely on immigration law.

You can trust our professional and friendly team to project manage your case with expertise and compassion from the start to the beginning of the process, for a reasonable fixed fee. Simply call us today, on 0208 215 0053, or fill in and submit our online contact form to arrange a free consultation.

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