Asylum seekers were handcuffed and restrained after self-harming in scenes of desperation and chaos at a controversial migrant processing centre, The Independent can reveal.
Shocking accounts by Home Office staff and private contractors record fights breaking out over food and overcrowding as the population at Manston climbed towards 4,000 people in October.
Documents obtained under freedom of information laws by Liberty Investigates, part of the Liberty civil rights charity, and seen by The Independent , show how staff restrained detainees and locked them in “cell vans” at the former military base in Kent.
The first detailed testimony of the conditions described by the guards include:
- Thousands of people sleeping on mats on the floor inside a makeshift marquee while being held for indefinite periods with nothing to do
- Incidents of detainees being pinned to the ground and beaten after hitting their heads against a wall
- Migrants being forcibly restrained after asking for food
- A man injured in a fight receiving “unacceptable” medical care because it was assumed he was “faking it”
The revelations come as the immigration system remains at breaking point, with more than 45,000 asylum seekers living in hotels and a record backlog of over 140,000 undecided claims.
Rishi Sunak has pledged to bring forward new legislation he claims will “stop the boats” in the coming weeks, and has continued to pursue the stalled Rwanda scheme. But critics say the government’s previously attempted “deterrents” have failed, and that it must create safe and legal alternatives to the Channel crossings.
Almost 1,200 migrants arrived in small boats in January, putting Manston in regular use after the government downgraded the legal standards governing detention limits, conditions and healthcare.
In several incidents recorded in October at the height of the overcrowding crisis, officials described handcuffing migrants who were banging their heads against walls, with one man being pinned to the ground, hit with an “elbow strike” and put in leg restraints.
The forms recording these incidents were filled out by custody staff and immigration officers after “use of force incidents”.
Several of the forms note high tensions inside crammed marquees that had been hastily erected to house migrants, sometimes for weeks, after the Home Office failed to set up sufficient accommodation.
At the time, thousands of people were sleeping on mats on the floor while being detained for an indefinite period with few activities, no mobile phones, and limits on communication with the outside world.
An official from the ISU union, which represents Border Force staff, said the conditions had “contributed to the psychological state that leads to people self-harming”.
“It also leads to things like stealing food, rushing doors, organised unrest,” Lucy Moreton, a spokesperson for the union, added. “All of that comes from and is driven by being restrained in conditions which are not designed to meet basic human needs.”
Several of the accounts of incidents describe tensions boiling over into fights and clashes, including between groups of different nationalities.
An officer raised concerns over the standard of medical care after a man was injured in an attack by another detainee on 2 October, writing that the treatment given by an on-site team was “unacceptable” and adding: “More care was given by [a detainee custody officer] than any medic on site ... I got the feeling the medics thought he was faking the injury.” The man was later taken to hospital by ambulance.
On the same day, a different officer working for private contractor Mitie recorded a “very tense” atmosphere and wrote that detainees “seemed very uncertain”.
“A few different residents had asked me if they were leaving tonight and if they are going to a hotel,” the officer wrote. “I was explaining to them that we need to be patient, we don’t know what is happening.”
On 14 October, a detainee who “became irate” after asking staff why they had not been given food was handcuffed and temporarily detained.
The officer involved said he believed the man was “going to cause myself or others harm” after “shouting about the food and that he was not a dog”.
There were several incidents in which people were restrained after trying to walk out of, or break out of, marquees.
On 25 October, a Home Office official reported that “migrants were attempting to rush the doors”, a day after a “sit-down protest outside the tent compound”.
Weeks before, the Prison Officers’ Association (POA) had sounded a public warning over the situation at Manston, saying that poor conditions and overcrowding were contributing to a “pressure cooker” atmosphere.
Immigration minister Robert Jenrick later admitted that Manston was not “operating legally” at the time, and that the problem was caused by a “failure to plan” for a surge in small-boat crossings.
Idel Hanley, policy manager at the Medical Justice charity, which advocates for health care for detainees, said the accounts suggested little had been learnt from inquiries into other immigration detention centres, and that the use of force was “a terrifying re-enactment of past abuse” for some migrants.
“Many people at Manston will have histories of torture and trauma,” she added. “This information indicates a situation which was chaotic and frightening, with little accountability or liability.”
The Home Office said that two incidents of force were recorded by Mitie custody staff and 19 by Clandestine Threat Command officers at Manston in October.
The forms contain references to other incidents involving employees of another private contractor, Interforce, but they do not appear to have filled out any forms after restraining migrants.
HM Inspectorate of Prisons says that staff involved in any incidents must “complete appropriate reports promptly and in detail”, with documents scrutinised to “identify possible ill-treatment”.
Andy Baxter, assistant general secretary of the POA, said the association had “consistently raised concerns about escalating use of force incidents, particularly in the areas of the site under the control of Interforce staff”.
“Interforce contract staff were brought on site very quickly in response to the rapid expansion of Manston, and the staff in parts of the facility did not have the correct level of training and interpersonal skills to recognise and defuse conflict situations,” he told The Independent .
Ms Moreton, of the ISU, said that private contractors do not have the same legal powers as Home Office staff and can only act in self-defence or the defence of another person.
“The Home Office was aware of serious concerns raised by staff and others about the length of time migrants were held for, and queries about the possible legality of that detention,” she added. “Staff were being asked to perform public control functions, which are outside of their legal remit and their training. It was a very frightening time for all concerned.”
The Home Office said that all staff working at Manston were trained in the use of force, but at “different levels”.
A spokesperson added: “We take the safety and welfare of those in our care extremely seriously. Significant improvements have been made to facilities at Manston in recent months, following unprecedented numbers of people crossing the Channel last autumn, and the site remains well-resourced for future arrivals.
“All on-site staff receive the relevant training required for their roles, and all operational activities are risk-assessed and subject to review.
“The Home Office ensures all its contractors employ people in accordance with their wider legal obligations, and we expect high standards from all of our providers and their staff to keep those in our care safe.”
Mitie said that the accommodation it manages has fresh food and snacks on offer, as well as activities including televisions, games consoles and board games.
The contractor said its detention custody officers have undergone specialist training and are lawfully permitted to use force when they believe it is reasonable, necessary, and proportionate. Representatives of Interforce did not comment.
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