Hundreds of wet and cold migrants were forced to spend hours in cramped containers on a “rubble-strewn building site” after arriving in the UK on small boats, a report has revealed.
In a rare insight into how newly arrived asylum seekers are treated by authorities, prison inspectors visited Tug Haven in Dover, where migrants are first taken from the beach or sea, and found a shortage of dry clothing and other basic supplies.
Images show migrants queueing at Tug Haven surrounded by rubble and temporary fencing. Windowless shipping containers were used to hold the arrivals.
More than 7,400 people have arrived in the UK in small boats this year, according to analysis by PA Media, nearly four times as many as in 2019, with a record 416 arriving on a single day on 2 September. All migrants are taken to Tug Haven for “processing” before heading to other short-term facilities. On the day of the inspection, 200 people arrived.
The chief inspector of prisons, Peter Clarke, said the numbers were no excuse for the conditions at Tug Haven and other sites, and criticised the Home Office for failing to plan “for what must have been a predictable increase” in arrivals from across the Channel.
“Just because numbers are unprecedented, that does not mean they are unpredictable, or cannot be planned for,” he said. “While the number of arrivals had been far higher in 2020 than in previous years, the reception arrangements at Tug Haven were not fit for even small numbers. This was readily acknowledged by local Home Office staff, who were themselves working in challenging conditions.”
Newly arrived detainees were triaged at Tug Haven for urgent medical conditions and symptoms of Covid-19, the report said. A designated van was available where migrants would be seated if they displayed any symptoms of the virus.
Despite the poor conditions, the detainees – mainly from Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Syria and Eritrea – who were interviewed by inspectors were almost all positive about the way individual staff at Tug Haven treated them.
In September, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons visited short-term immigration detention holding facilities at Tug Haven, the Kent Intake Unit in Dover, Frontier House in Folkestone, Lunar House in Croydon and Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre in Bedford, which had been re-designated as a short-term holding facility.
Inspectors said the Kent Intake Unit and Frontier House were not suitable for “very lengthy detentions” but some detainees were held for more than two days in rooms with no sleeping facilities, showers or access to the open air. Social distancing was not possible, and there were some basic omissions, inspectors said, such as not providing handwashing facilities or sanitiser in the women’s toilets.
On average, children were held at the Kent Intake Unit for 17 hours, which was longer than the average for adults. In one case, a 15-year-old boy was held for over 66 hours. Other findings by the inspectors included:
inspectors identified weaknesses in child safeguarding procedures and in one case a child was mistakenly taken to a detention centre for adults;
children were held for too long and often overnight, partly because Kent county council’s social services department no longer has the capacity to care for unaccompanied minors;
one family group, held in Frontier House for 45 hours, included a baby and other children, aged five, seven, nine and 10;
detainees arriving at Tug Haven routinely had their mobile phones confiscated, while detainees in Yarl’s Wood are banned from using social media;
Tinsley House immigration removal centre, near Gatwick, is now receiving small boat arrivals.
Bridget Chapman, a caseworker and spokesperson for Kent Refugee Action Network, said the report contained “a litany of serious problems”. “As a charity working with unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in Kent, it is our duty to speak up on their behalf, and we would like a reassurance that this terrible and dangerous mistake will not be repeated.
“Asylum-seeking people are arriving here seeking sanctuary. Instead of taking care of them, the government is placing them in what amounts to inhuman and degrading conditions. This shames us all and has to be rectified with immediate effect.”
Minnie Rahman, public affairs and campaigns manager at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), said: “The Home Office could and should take simple, practical steps to treat newly arrived asylum seekers with humanity: house them, support them and process their claims properly. Instead, politicians are neglecting people’s basic needs while at the same time using them as fodder for their PR cannon, releasing laughable proposals to send people thousands of miles away or put wave machines in the Channel just so they can ‘look tough’ on immigration.”