‘Like a Dead Cat on the Road’: Inside the UK’s Most Notorious Immigration Centre

VICE World News spoke to two Albanian nationals about the prison-like conditions and violence they experienced in the Manston processing centre, before they were deported with no legal help.
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Migrants search for their belongings before boarding a bus to leave a holding facility at Manston Airfield on November 2, 2022 in Ramsgate, England. Photo: Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images.

TIRANA, Albania – Two Albanians fast-track removed from a controversial migrant centre under the government’s new pilot scheme say they were kept in inhumane conditions and denied access to legal advice. 

The two men, who spoke to VICE World News this week in Albania, were given less than 10 hours’ notice before being flown to Albania and say they did not understand what was happening to them until they were on a bus to the airport.

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The case raises worries over human rights breaches at Manston, amid a growing political crisis surrounding overcrowding at the centre in Kent. Lawyers and NGOs are concerned that people are being removed from Manston without access to independent legal advice.

VICE World News met the two men in Tirana, the capital of Albania, a few days after they had been forcibly returned to the country. Sitting outside a café Eri, who is in his early 30s and talked on the condition he was not named, looked despondent as he described his experiences. “I had no idea the UK would be like that,” he said. A second man, Andi, in his mid 20s, who also did not want to be identified for fear of reprisals, said he wanted people to know more about “the miserable conditions” inside Manston.

The two men were put on a charter flight with nine other Albanians on Wednesday 19 October, several days after arriving in the UK via dinghy boats across the Channel. Britain’s right-wing media has hailed this “zero-notice removals” scheme as “a major breakthrough” in tackling small boat arrivals. But NGOs say it may be breaching migrants’ fundamental rights by denying them access to legal advice.

Eri told VICE World News he had decided to go to the UK because he “couldn’t make ends meet” in Albania, despite working since the age of 14. His father is disabled and the family has medical debts. A relative in the UK told him he could get him a job in construction. Although they knew they were risking their lives, Eri and three friends organised a trip across the English Channel by boat with a Kurdish smuggling gang, via a middleman in the UK, and paid £3,500 each. VICE World News reviewed footage of Eri’s trip, which took place on 14 October. A video showed a crowded inflatable boat, with people forced to sit on top of each other without life jackets.

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The British right-wing press has been discussing migration from Albania in increasingly hysterical terms after data in the summer showed that six out of every ten people arriving on small boats are Albanian. The Home Office has declared Albania “a safe and prosperous country” but previous reporting by VICE World News shows a more complex picture, with many people trying to escape a soaring cost-of-living crisis, corruption and gang-related crime.

Eri’s boat was picked up by the British coastguard close to shore. Passengers slept at the port for one night and were interviewed about who had steered their boat. The next day they were transferred to a large tented camp. Andi, who crossed the Channel on a separate dinghy with his cousin who had promised him they could find work in the UK because he could not make ends meet back home, was also taken to the same camp. They were not told its name but their descriptions match Manston, a former RAF airfield that was recently described by the borders watchdog as having “wretched conditions.” Under English law, arrivals should only be held here for a maximum of 24 hours but it is believed many are being held for far longer.

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A view over tented accommodation at Manston Airfield on November 2, 2022 in Ramsgate, England. Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images.

Here, the men were given what they described as matching “prison-style” uniforms and wristbands with numbers on them. Eri and Andi say conditions were overcrowded, with around 200 people sleeping on the bare floor under blankets. Fights broke out regularly over food and there were no shower facilities – “we smelt like a dead cat on the road,” said Eri.

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After two nights here, the new arrivals went to have their fingerprints taken and seven Albanians – including Eri and Andi – were held back, separate from the friends and family they’d travelled with. They were taken to a smaller tent, where around 200 people were sharing a roughly 18 square metre space and sleeping on top of and underneath stadium-style chairs. The men’s belongings, including their mobile phones, were confiscated. The toilet floor was “covered in shit,” despite people sleeping just a few feet away, and there wasn’t always running water. “I started to sink into depression,” said Eri, who said he was in the tent for two days and one night.

Officials called the men by number at around 10am the next day and took them for an interview. They were asked why they had come to the UK and led through around 10 yes/no questions, such as, “Are you aware the UK government cannot help you?” 

Both men told the interviewers that they intended to work and did not ask to claim asylum. However, Andi said that Albanians who have already successfully made the Channel crossing are warning others not to ask for asylum in case they are sent to Rwanda, under the Home Office’s controversial plan to put some asylum seekers on one-way flights to the East African country. The men say they were not given the opportunity to speak to a lawyer at any point in the process and were not informed of their rights.

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Multiple immigration experts contacted by VICE World News confirmed that new arrivals should always have access to legal advice regardless of whether they have asked for asylum or not. James Wilson, deputy director of Detention Action, says that any mention of having a job in the UK should also ring an alarm bell that the individual may be a victim of trafficking. “It doesn’t necessarily mean they were free [to come to that job],” he said.

That evening at around 11pm the seven men were issued with deportation papers and placed on a minibus with four other Albanians who had just arrived on boats. Eri and Andi say the group did not fully understand what was happening to them until they were on the bus. They were taken to an airport and flown back to Tirana, with each person escorted by two police officers. VICE World News reviewed images of the documents, which show they were issued on 18 October. The charter flight for their removal is listed as leaving at 7.20AM on 19 October from Doncaster-Sheffield airport.

Flight data shows the plane was provided by Spanish airline Privilege Style, a company that previously withdrew from providing deportation flights to Rwanda following pressure from campaigners. Other reports have stated that a similar flight also took place on 13 October.

A spokesperson for the company told VICE World News that it does not comment on flights for confidentiality or security reasons, but that it “always operates and will continue to only operate flights that comply with 100% of the legislation in force in the countries of origin and destination of the flights.”

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Toufique Hossain, director of public law at Duncan Lewis Solicitors, says the men should have been given advice about their rights on arrival and before being returned “irrespective of whether or not they claimed asylum.”

Rakesh Singh, lead lawyer at the Public Law Project, says "There are potentially questions about the lawfulness of the way in which they were removed. If they did not have access to legal advice prior to removal, then that's a very serious concern.”

"It is also very worrying if the Rwanda policy is starting to have this chilling effect where people aren't actually raising that their safety is at risk in their home country and don't have the ability to seek legal advice about it before they are removed."

The Home Office’s fast-track removal scheme for Albanian nationals has been causing concern since it was announced in late August. The government later admitted it did not have the right to remove anyone who has applied for asylum. Last Thursday the Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick said arrivals from Albania could be given a “bespoke route” to have their claims heard quickly.

However, NGOs are worried that people with genuine grounds for asylum claims may not make them if they do not have access to proper legal advice. “We are deeply concerned that people are being misinformed about or denied the opportunity to access the asylum process,” says Joseph Maggs, coordinator of SOAS Detainee Support, an NGO working with migrants and asylum seekers. “The Home Office is then using the fact they haven’t claimed asylum as an excuse to rapidly deport them.”

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It is not clear how many people have been removed in total under the new scheme. Speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme on Tuesday, Jenrick said that around 1,000 have been returned under a scheme signed with the Albanian government last year, and that he “wants to see far more returned in the months ahead.” However, Maggs says that because NGOs are not allowed into Manston, it is difficult for anyone to verify exactly how many people are being removed at zero-notice. The Home Office did not confirm to VICE World News the total number of people removed under this scheme.

Under normal circumstances, Home Office guidelines say people must be given five days’ notice before being removed via charter flight. However, in these circumstances they are treating them as “port arrivals” which don’t require a notice period, similar to those who turn up at an airport with the wrong visa and are put on the next flight home. 

Wilson says Detention Action is “very concerned about what seems to be some form of profiling based on nationality. You can only establish the grounds of someone's possible claims for asylum and the risk of them having been trafficked on an individual basis.” He added: "It isn't at all clear that people being held [at Manston] are being offered proper legal advice alongside wider concerns about the conditions.”

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A Home Office spokesperson said: “Individuals who make the dangerous and unnecessary journeys across the Channel will be removed as quickly as possible as the UK public rightly expects, and Albania is a safe country.”

They added: “Everyone arriving via small boat (as with any other mode of arrival) is interviewed regarding the purpose for which they are seeking entry to the UK, and the circumstances in which they have travelled. Interviews are conducted by trained first responders, who will identify trafficking indicators where they are present.”

Back in Albania, Eri and Andi are feeling shaken by their experiences and are unsure how they will repay their debts to their traffickers. They have no plans to try to leave the country again. But with more people facing devastating poverty and trauma, and few routes for safe migration open, there are likely to be more people willing to risk the journey no matter how harsh the Home Office’s policies.

Reporting for this piece was supported by journalismfund.eu