Asylum seekers arriving in the UK after crossing the Channel on small boats are being processed in cramped facilities resembling a “rubble-strewn building site”, according to the prisons watchdog.
HM Inspectorate of Prisons warns in a report today that thousands of migrants who arrive on British shores “wet and cold” have been held at Tug Haven, a reception facility in Dover, where they spend hours in the open air or in cramped containers.
Inspectors noted the site was “not even fit for small numbers” and that social distancing was impossible, with detainees held in three metal containers with a maximum seating capacity for 24 people, while some had to sit or lie on the ground due to lack of space.
Small boat arrivals have been increasing since late 2018, largely due to a shift in method from lorries to boats. In the three months to August 2020, about 2,500 people were received at Tug Haven before being bailed or dispersed to other detention facilities.
The report also reveals that in short-term holding facilities Kent Intake Unit (KIU) and Frontier House, some detainees were held for more than two days in rooms with no sleeping facilities, showers or access to the open air.
The report criticises the Home Office for failing to plan for “what must have been a predictable increase in numbers”, stating: “It needs to be understood that just because numbers are unprecedented, that does not mean they are unpredictable, or cannot be planned for.”
Chief inspector Peter Clarke also raises concern that, both while being processed and after being moved on to other detention facilities, asylum seekers often have no access to legal advice and were not screened for vulnerability.
Mobile phones were always confiscated at Tug Haven and detainees were rarely given the opportunity to call someone to advise them of their whereabouts, nor have their current status or rights fully explained through an interpreter.
On arrival at Yarl’s Wood, where most adult migrants are transferred to after being processed, they continued to be “inadequately informed” about what would happen next. While phones were provided, detainees were not always properly informed about how to activate them, inspectors said.
It comes after a report by Movement for Justice last week found that some asylum seekers who arrive in the UK on small boats receive no access to legal advice until days before they are due to be deported from the country.
Home secretary Priti Patel has been critical of “last-minute legal claims” which “frustrate” removals – but the immigration rights group warned that in many cases the first time Channel migrants only have the opportunity to speak to a lawyer was in the days before deportation.
The Prison Inspectorate’s report noted that asylum screening interviews were often “abridged” and took place in the early hours of the morning, which it said reduced the likelihood that detainees would disclose safeguarding needs.
No referrals were made to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) – the UK’s framework for identifying victims of modern slavery and trafficking – from Yarl’s Wood in the three months to 31 August 2020, raising concern about whether vulnerabilities were being properly assessed.
Mr Clarke concluded: “We met detainees who had been extremely traumatised after their long journeys, and their positive feedback on the decency shown to them by many individual staff cannot be underestimated. However, the detention facilities in Dover were very poorly equipped to meet their purpose and important processes had broken down.
“While some of the concerns identified can be addressed by local managers, an effective response requires coordinated and strategic action involving different Home Office agencies and the port authorities.”
Celia Clarke, director at Bail for Immigration Detainees, said the current system of receiving and detaining asylum seekers in the UK was “completely dehumanising”.
She added: “It is no surprise that many are forced to lodge desperate last-minute legal claims to prevent removal, when they are systematically denied access to legal advice at an early opportunity.”
Karen Doyle, national organiser at Movement for Justice, said: “The lack of legal advice, failure to identify victims of trafficking and lack of any information being provided in a language people can understand is of serious concern.
“So many of those we spoke to who had crossed the channel are victims of horrendous torture, abuse and trafficking, their journey was deeply traumatic. What they need is care, support, legal advice and medical attention at the earliest opportunity, instead they are left in the dark and denied access to these critical things.”
A spokesperson from Medical Justice echoed her concerns, saying the report highlighted the “ongoing failure” by the Home Office and its contractors to identify vulnerable migrants, including those with serious medical conditions as well as potential victims of trafficking and torture.
“Rather than dumbing down, the Home Office urgently needs to be doubling up its identification mechanisms and safeguards. If the person is not identified as vulnerable at the outset of the process, their whole case, as well as their health, can be severely compromised,” she added.
The Home Office said: “We take the welfare of people in our care extremely seriously. We are fully adhering to our statutory duties to ensure our facilities are decent and humane.
“We have also improved both our facilities and the way we deal with arrivals in response to the unprecedented rise in small boat crossings.
“These crossings are dangerous, illegally-facilitated and unnecessary. We are committed to fixing the asylum system, to make it fairer and firmer, compassionate to those who need help and welcoming people through safe and legal routes.”