Asylum seekers at Manston were handcuffed, restrained and struck, internal docs show

Photo: Alamy

Protesters, at Manchester St Peter's square, demonstrate and call for the shutting down of the Manston immigration centre which is near Ramsgate in Kent. UK. Charlie Taylor, chief inspector of prisons, said an inspection of the Manston short-term holding
Documents reveal how officers locked detainees in "cell vans" where some began self-harming

Reports Aaron Walawalkar, Liberty Investigates journalist; Eleanor Rose, Liberty Investigates Editor; and Lizzie Dearden, Home Affairs Editor at the Independent.


Asylum seekers were handcuffed and restrained after self-harming amid scenes of desperation and chaos at Manston, internal documents reveal.

Shocking accounts by Home Office staff and private contractors record fights breaking out over food and overcrowding as the processing facility’s population climbed towards 4,000 people in October.

The documents, obtained under freedom of information laws by Liberty Investigates and seen by The Independent, show how staff restrained detainees and locked them in “cell vans” where some began self-harming at the former military base in Kent.

In separate incidents on 19, 20 and 21 October, 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, which were filled out by custody staff and immigration officers after “use of force incidents”, recorded people shouting and screaming but did not give any explanation for their distress.

A detention custody officer writes of medics "dilly dallying" (Photo: Home Office, by FOI)

Several documents noted high tensions inside crammed marquees that were hastily erected to house migrants, sometimes for weeks, because 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 indefinite periods with no access to 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 added. “All of that comes from and is driven by being restrained in conditions which are not designed to meet basic human needs.”

Several incidents revealed by the forms show tensions between migrants boiling over into fights and clashes, including between groups of different nationalities.

An officer raised concerns over the standards 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 [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.

Protesters in Manchester call for the shutting down of the Manston processing facility (Photo: Alamy)

On the same day, a different custody 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 who restrained him, saying he believed the man was “going to cause myself or others harm”, said he had been “shouting about the food and that he was not a dog”.

There were several incidents where people were restrained after trying to walk out of, or break out of, marquees.

On 25 October, a Home Office official wrote of disorder where “migrants were attempting to rush the doors”, a day after a “sit-down protest outside the tent compound”.

“Many people at Manston will have histories of torture and trauma ... the use of force can be experienced as a terrifying re-enactment of past abuse”

Idel Hanley, policy manager at Medical Justice

Weeks before, the Prison Officers’ Association (POA) had sounded a public warning over conditions at Manston, saying poor conditions and overcrowding were contributing to a “pressure cooker” atmosphere.

The group said migrants were being kept in crowded tents with “inadequate” bedding, mould and bacteria, for long periods and that fights had broken out.

Immigration minister Robert Jenrick later admitted that Manston was not “operating legally” at the time, and that the situation was caused by a “failure to plan” for a surge in small boat crossings.

The government also faced accusations it had failed to act on official warnings over the spread of diphtheria in migrant reception centres and on 19 November, 31-year-old Hussein Haseeb Ahmed died after being held at the facility for seven days.

The cause of his death will be established at an inquest starting in May, but officials have confirmed he had contracted the illness.

Idel Hanley, policy manager at the Medical Justice charity, said the accounts suggested little had been learned from inquiries into other immigration detention centres.

“Many people at Manston will have histories of torture and trauma,” she added. “The use of force can be experienced as a terrifying re-enactment of past abuse.

“The information indicates a situation which was chaotic and frightening, with little accountability or liability.”

The Home Office confirmed that two incidents of force were recorded by Mitie custody staff and 19 by Clandestine Threat Command officers at Manston in October.

But the forms contain references to several other incidents involving employees of another private contractor, Interforce, which had been charged with running one of the marquees.

No incident forms appear to have been filled out by Interforce staff, despite accounts of them restraining migrants and pinning them to the ground, and union representatives question the legal basis for such uses of force.

An employee of Interforce is described pinning an asylum seeker to the ground. Photo: Home Office, by FOI

Andy Baxter, assistant general secretary of the POA, said it had “consistently raised concerns about escalating use of force incidents particularly in the areas of the site under the control of Interforce staff”.

“The POA believe that Interforce contract staff were brought on site very quickly in response to the rapid expansion of the facility and the staff in parts of the facility did not have the correct level of training and inter-personal skills to recognise and diffuse conflict situations,” he told The Independent.

Ms Moreton, of the ISU, said that private contractors do not have specialist legal powers 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.”

Official criteria for immigration detention state that force should only be “used as a last resort and for legitimate reasons … when other methods have failed”, and “subject to rigorous governance”.

Requirements listed by HM Inspectorate of Prisons say staff involved in any incidents must “complete appropriate reports promptly and in detail” and that the documents are scrutinised to “identify possible ill-treatment” and investigate concerns.

A Home Office spokesperson said it had made “significant improvements” to facilities at Manston in recent months.

They added: “All onsite 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.”

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 onsite 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 marquees it manages have 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 were approached for comment.

This article was published in partnership with The Independent.