The Prison Officers Association described Manston Airport processing centre as “A humanitarian crisis on British soil”. The Government has admitted that its treatment of asylum seekers at Manston was not “legally compliant”. The pictures and stories we are seeing are appalling and angering in equal measure. What was meant to be a processing centre where asylum seekers stayed for a day to have initial checks and details taken has become an ill planned, squalid, and haphazard detention centre where families are confined for weeks or even months.
Home Office is responsible for the Manston site but takes no responsibility
The site is run by a series of private contractors, agencies and military personnel but, according to the Prison Offers Association, with no central command, incident response system or control room. The point where the responsibility and co-ordination joins these disparate groups together is the Home Office, which is responsible for the processing of asylum seekers and the running of the facility.
The Home Secretary stated “the asylum system is broken” but not by way of apology for being responsible for the “humanitarian crisis” that is Manston or for being the person responsible for the smooth running of the Asylum System. Instead, she blamed it on the asylum seekers themselves. Despite around three out of four people applying for asylum eventually being granted it the Home Secretary implied that many asylum seekers were cheats and even criminals – while providing neither evidence nor context to these serious allegations. Instead, she resorted to the rhetorical device of saying this is what “the whole country knows” – a device that is usually best translated as “I have no evidence”. She emphasised the “exorbitant costs” of providing hotel rooms for asylum seekers, and contrasted these asylum seekers with migrants “who play by the rules”.
While the large number of asylum seekers was repeatedly mentioned as the reason for Manston being critically overcrowded, the Home Secretary did not feel the need to mention that her officials estimated at the beginning of the year that 60,000 would come by small boats – an estimate that appears to be extremely accurate if slightly on the high side. The number of asylum seekers arriving on the south coast was expected – it just wasn’t prepared for.
A broken asylum system
The narrative the Home Secretary gave us was that there was an “invasion of the south coast”. Her narrative is that this was from people who are not playing by the rules, containing an unspecified (but probably large) number of criminals who have overwhelmed and then broke our “hopelessly lax” asylum system, creating exorbitant costs for the taxpayer.
Despite being in control of the asylum system, including Manston, the Home Secretary’s narrative clearly lays responsibility for its problems elsewhere. The problem is that it takes a single graph using the Home Office’s own data to demonstrate that story is at odds with the evidence.
These data show that the asylum system has been failing since 2015. More and more people wait longer and longer for decisions. The rise in waits was not caused by increasing numbers of people. Nor is there in the other published Home Office data any evidence that the composition of claims changed or became more difficult to process. The number of decisions on asylum claims simply dropped, over 7 years no effective remedial action was taken so inevitably a backlog built up.
Prolonged waits for decisions are a human tragedy. People are left to live off “section 95” support which is set so low as to make decent dignified living almost impossible. But perhaps most tragically of all it leaves people in limbo often for years, not knowing their fate or able to plan their future.
The other tragedy is that while people are waiting for a decision they normally are not allowed to work. So people willing to work, in a nation which is suffering from large labour shortages, cannot take jobs and contribute taxes and instead are vilified for being forced by law to take tax payers money. Or to use the Home Secretary’s phrase create “exorbitant costs”.
In short, if the Government wants to reduce these exorbitant costs – it should make timely decisions. If it wants to reduce the pressures in local authorities where hotel and section 95 accommodation is located – it should make timely decisions. If it wants to get rid of people suspected of criminality– it should make timely decisions. If it wants to reduce labour shortages and enable refugees to integrate into communities – it should make timely decisions!
If the asylum system is broken, don’t look to desperate people clinging onto boats in the English Channel, or children sleeping on the floors of marques for weeks on end – look to those who allowed a backlog of over 100,000 applications to build-up over 7-years and ask them why.
The power of story
The story told by the Home Secretary does not stand up to its first contact with evidence. Unfortunately, in many places it will not be required to encounter any evidence. The story will take hold because it taps into prejudices and stories that have been around for years. The inflammatory rhetoric of being “invaded” provides a particularly emotive link to those prejudices. This rhetoric has a long history of advancing political careers, creating division, but it has never to my knowledge led to an issue being satisfactorily resolved.
The story told by asylum seekers can be much more powerful. Just one extraordinary example I read today is here. But sadly, these stories are told by people with much less power in our society. The difference in power is seen no more clearly in than in the ability to communicate a version of events. While the Home Office employs around 250 communications officers, and is able to speak directly to press and parliament – the asylum seekers/detainees are not allowed phones and their most impactful access to journalists has been a child throwing a bottle containing a handwritten note over the fence that confines them.
Even a cursory understanding of the ministry of Jesus tells me which of those stories Christians should be drawn to. Our calling is stand beside those who are suffering and whose story is being drowned out by the powerful.
 It would be unfair to call even those who have unsuccessful claims “cheats” – to apply in good faith does not mean you succeed, it just means you do not meet the specific criteria the Home Office are looking for, criteria you may believe you meet or may have been unaware of at the point of application.
 Data from Home Office tables Asy_D01 and Asy_D03 – https://www.gov.uk/government/statistical-data-sets/asylum-and-resettlement-datasets