Skip to main content
CampaignsEqualityHousingEnvironmentMigrationSupport Our WorkEducationRaceCultureWorkGlobalVacancies

We don't need an inquiry into Manston

We need a police investigation. 

December 03 2022, 10.49am

Housing for people seeking asylum seekers is undergoing a sinister transition, with large-scale institutional and “camp-style” accommodation appearing in several places in the UK. These new forms of housing – such as disused army barracks - are becoming a permanent feature of the asylum system despite the controversy surrounding them. RAF Manston is just one such site, but it has rapidly acquired notoriety over the past few weeks ever since 4,000 arrivals were placed there by the Home Office, detained far longer than the legal limit of 24 hours.

A humanitarian crisis quickly emerged. Barbed wire fences, families sleeping on the floor, a diphtheria outbreak, and severe overcrowding led a watchdog to describe conditions as “wretched”. Public condemnation after a man tragically died after being held at the site unlawfully has seen the site emptied. But there are still large and looming questions about how to ensure that people seeking sanctuary are never put in this situation again.

It’s not like nobody saw it coming. During the passage of the Nationality and Borders Bill , campaigners warned that the legislation would bring the asylum system, already struggling after decades of mismanagement, to its knees. Every shred of evidence showed that the measures in the Bill would cause an unprecedented backlog in processing within the Home Office, leaving people seeking asylum stuck in limbo, in unsuitable, isolated housing, at high risk of exploitation, and severely damaging their physical and mental health. In a worst-case scenario, deaths in the Channel and on British soil would increase.

For people affected by the asylum system and those working to better it, the passage of the Bill was a soul-destroying process, as is trying to work through the chaos that is now baked into the asylum system. Years of failed campaigning against a government politically committed to dehumanising migrants and refugees has left many grasping for a solution.  

The latest attempt, fielded by  44 charitable organisations, calls for a “Windrush-style” inquiry into the failings at Manston. But in recent years, government-led inquiries like The Grenfell Tower Inquiry, Sue Gray Investigation and Windrush Inquiry have all failed to redress the wrongs caused by Government failures. The Windrush Lessons Learned Review itself, while a historic moment of progress for the Windrush generation and for the campaign against the Hostile Environment, was not an overwhelming success. The publication of the review was delayed, leaked copies of the report showed that important recommendations were changed and ignored by the Government and , to date, only 8 of the 30 final recommendations have been acted on. By all measures of success, this was not one of them.

The site and others like it have already been subject to numerous investigations and fact-finding missions, including by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders, the Council of Europe’s Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment Committee, and the Home Affairs Select Committee. The argument for an inquiry, while based on good faith, accepts the premise that the Government does not know the impacts of its own legislation.

People seeking asylum do not have the time to wait for the findings of a drawn-out public inquiry which does not commit the government to immediate action.  From private contractors running asylum accommodation, to Ministers who ignore the law, there is an urgent need for campaigners to work towards actions that will hold those causing harm to account and provide justice to those who were harmed.  

When a person dies in police custody an independent investigation that is capable of leading to the identification and punishment of any person or company that may have been criminally responsible for the death is carried out. The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) has received a referral from the Home Office about the death at Manston, but the IOPC has said that it does not have the jurisdiction to investigate. Nevertheless, the asylum system has transformed significantly at a rapid pace Rather than calling for anodyne inquiries that take years and accomplish next to nothing, we should be clamouring  for new investigatory mechanisms with teeth – starting with a police investigation - alongside compensation for victims.

 And by 'we', I don’t mean immigration advocates or NGOs. I mean the opposition, too. With new research finding that the public is favourable to a fair asylum system, and polls indicating that the next government will be Labour led, it is vital that campaigners ensure that Labour and current opposition parties do not shy away from addressing the failures in the system or accountability when in office. Labour must commit to reversing the effects of the Bill, eliminating the backlog-  through schemes which quickly grant people the right to stay - and installing new, potent investigatory mechanisms 

If we truly want an asylum system that recognises the right to safety and allows people to rebuild their lives as part of our communities, we must take the urgency of the moment and turn it into forceful campaigning. To do that, we must recognise that working within the narrow confines of government mechanisms is no longer appropriate, particularly as the system has changed so dramatically in front of us.

It is time for creative thought, new courage and a strategy which places justice for those trapped in the Home Office system at its heart. And this can’t be done without accountability for those setting the traps to start with.