Manston asylum seekers with suspected diphtheria ‘moved around UK’ as cases rise

Government accused of putting migrants and hotel workers at ‘preventable risk’

Adam Forrest
Sunday 27 November 2022 16:40 GMT
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‘Shortage of safe and legal routes’ for migrants, Suella Braverman told by Tory MP

Home secretary Suella Braverman is under more pressure following a report that dozens of asylum seekers with suspected diphtheria were moved from Manston to hotels around the UK.

Officials are expected to confirm on Monday that the number of cases of the highly contagious bacterial infection has risen to about 50, amid concerns about the spread of the disease.

More than 70 suspected cases of diphtheria were seen among the migrants who have been moved from the processing facility in Kent to hotels around the country in recent weeks, according to The Sunday Times.

Jim McManus, president of the Association of Directors of Public Health, said it had “put asylum seekers and potentially hotel workers at avoidable and preventable risk”.

Claiming an offer to help the government deal with the outbreak was “rebuffed”, Mr McManus said the lack of “information, coordination and engagement from the Home Office has made the situation far worse than it could have been”.

Liberal Democrat health spokeswoman Daisy Cooper said Ms Braverman “must take responsibility and resign immediately” over the “scandal” surrounding Manston.

“The UK is better than this. The Conservative government should be ashamed of their callous complacency over the health and wellbeing of asylum seekers coming out of Manston,” she said.

Cabinet minister Mark Harper said there was “extremely low risk to the wider community” from diphtheria despite the outbreak.

Despite the possibility that the disease had spread to dozens of cases, Mr Harper told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday: “My understanding is those cases were people who had that disease before they came to the United Kingdom.”

The government revealed on Saturday that a PCR test on a man who died after being held – possibly unlawfully – at the Manston centre for one week showed “diphtheria may be the cause of the illness”.

The Independent understands that an update taking into account the number of diphtheria cases among recent arrivals up until Friday will estimate the figure at about 50. Officials could not rule out the number of actual cases being higher.

Separately, Ms Braverman has warned that millions of pounds may have to be paid to migrants claiming to have been held illegally at Manston through “Windrush-style” compensation payments.

Government officials fear thousands of asylum seekers held at Manston could be in line for at least £5,000, according to The Sunday Times, while some held for long periods could receive bigger payouts.

More than 4,000 asylum seekers had been held at the processing facility earlier this month despite its maximum capacity being only 1,600. Many were detained at the Kent site – designed to host people for up to 24 hours only – for several weeks.

Detention Action and the PCS union have sent a pre-action legal letter to Ms Braverman on behalf of a woman held at Manston “beyond statutory time limits”.

They allege her detention was unlawful on the basis of “inhuman or degrading treatment” through poor conditions, violating detention policy, a lack of privacy and obstacles to communication with lawyers.

A migrant at Manston attempting to communicate with journalists (PA)

Meanwhile, the Home Office is facing claims that officials have changed the birth dates of unaccompanied child asylum seekers so they can be detained as adults.

The Refugee Council said officials had altered the birth dates of some boys to make them over 18 – despite them having documents showing they were children. The charity said the failure to accept ages meant many children had been wrongly sent to Manston.

Renae Mann, executive director of services at the Refugee Council, said: “It is only once we get involved that these children are recognised as such and are taken into local authority care.”

She added: “This is a misuse of power by the government. These children are very vulnerable and have been through so much already. Instead of supporting them, systemic failures in the way they are treated are adding to their trauma and in many cases causing significant harm.”

A spokesperson for the Home Office said: “Age assessments are challenging but vital to identifying genuine asylum-seeking children and stop abuse of the system. We are taking a holistic approach to prevent adults claiming to be children, or children being wrongly treated as adults – both present serious safeguarding risks to children.

“Our reforms through the nationality and borders act aim to make assessments more consistent and robust by using scientific measures, and creating a new national age assessment board. If there is doubt whether a claimant is an adult or child, they will be referred for a local authority assessment and will be treated as a child until a decision on their age is made.”

Ms Braverman has come under fire over the dire conditions in Manston, and for failing to reduce the number of perilous crossings of the English Channel by people in small boats.

This week she admitted the government has “failed to control our borders” – but blamed desperate migrants and people smugglers for the overcrowding in Manston.

“I tell you who’s at fault. It’s very clear who’s at fault. It’s the people who are breaking our rules, coming here illegally, exploiting vulnerable people and trying to reduce the generosity of the British people. That’s who’s at fault,” Ms Braverman told MPs.

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