Britain’s migrant detention system is in crisis after an arson attack on one camp and revelations about outbreaks of disease due to overcrowding in another. A member of SOAS Detainee Support reports on what she saw at the Manston camp and the organising taking place to shut it down.

SOAS Detainee Support | via Twitter

On Sunday, members of Action Against Detention and Deportation (AADD), a coalition of anti-borders groups that include SOAS Detainee Support, All African Women’s Group and Stop Deportations, travelled to Manston Camp, a migrant detention facility that is operating out of a former military base near Ramsgate. We went to gather information and to try to speak to some of the people detained there. No NGOs, local groups or journalists have been allowed to visit the camp and information about conditions there has been scarce and unreliable.

What we witnessed at Manston was profoundly disturbing. The facility is surrounded by fences and barbed wire and the view into the camp is mostly obscured by sheets of tarpaulin designed to hide the conditions inside. Through a gap in the tarpaulin, we immediately saw families – men, women and dozens of young children. As soon as they saw us, the children started waving and chanting ‘freedom’ and ‘we need your help’. We spoke through a megaphone to ask questions and communicate with people inside. They told us that they came from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan and Pakistan, and said that they had no access to phones, legal support or adequate medical care and that some of them had been detained there for more than a month. They told us that conditions in the camp were ‘not good’ and that they needed help. 

While we were speaking to them, some of the children broke through a gap in one of the fences and ran towards us shouting ‘freedom’ before they were herded back into the main enclosed part of the camp by security guards. Other guards began putting up more tarpaulin to block our view; it’s clear that they wanted to do everything they could to stop us from communicating with people inside.

When you see Manston with your own eyes, there’s no mistaking what it is: a concentration camp. The camp was set up as a short-term holding facility to detain no more than 1,600 people. By Sunday evening, at least 4,000 people were crammed in, some sleeping on the floor. Most of the people held there will already have experienced profound trauma in their countries of origin and in the perilous crossing to the UK. They are now being further traumatised by the brutal conditions in the camp. There are reports of life-threatening outbreaks of disease: diphtheria, MRSA, norovirus, scabies. 

From a gap in the fence, we saw a man waiting in an enclosed processing area, holding his young daughter’s hand. Next to him were rows and rows of identical blue plastic bags holding the belongings of the people detained there. It has been reported that detainees are given wristbands and referred to by a number instead of their name. The camp is highly securitised, with signs on the perimeter warning of police dog patrols. Its staff is made up of workers from outsourcing giant Mitie and UK military personnel. 

Manston is an exercise in mass dehumanisation where the British state and private enterprise have come together to oversee and profit off human suffering. It is an appalling humanitarian crisis that is growing worse by the day. In the brief time that we were there, we witnessed at least thirteen coaches and buses entering the camp – all full. Some of these people, it seems, were new arrivals to the UK. Others, we learned, were being moved from a processing centre in Dover that had been petrol bombed only hours earlier. The centres in Dover and Manston are bleak indications of how far to the right the UK has drifted in its cruel and racist treatment of migrants.

While it’s clear that those detained at Manston are being held illegally, AADD is a coalition of border abolitionist groups and we refuse to see Manston as an outlier. The camp is just the sharp edge of a violent and racist border regime that touches the lives of so many, from those who face detention and deportation to the many people living in state-enforced poverty under the No Recourse to Public Funds policy. The call to shut down Manston camp is a call to shut down all detention centres and short-term holding facilities. We do not see the crisis at Manston as a problem of bureaucratic backlog in the asylum system, or of lack of provision of hotels for people seeking asylum, as Yvette Cooper has suggested

Manston is not an issue of illegality, poor planning or inefficiency. This is an immigration system working as it was designed to, stigmatising and criminalising the act of border crossing, stoking racism and xenophobia and dividing migrants into ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’, making life in the UK deliberately unbearable for people who migrate here. We reject this vision. We must say clearly that people have always moved, that every person has a right to build a home where they feel safe and fulfilled. We are border abolitionists because it is the border itself – and not the migrant – that constitutes a crisis.

The images and footage from Manston are shocking and the mainstream media is paying attention – for now. We need to build on this moment and keep pushing to shut down Manston and all other similar facilities. This Sunday, 6 November, we will be back outside the camp, this time with more people, making more noise. It’s important to break through the dehumanising isolation of detention – particularly in this case when people inside have no access to phones.

Join us there at 2pm on Sunday 6th November. We will be arranging a coach to travel from London, and will be trying to provide assistance for anybody on a low wage to be able to attend. Follow this link for more information:

We will be demonstrating to show that we stand with the people detained in Manston, that we hear their call for freedom. Their struggle is our struggle and we won’t give up the fight.

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