Channel migrants could be held at the Manston asylum processing centre for up to 96 hours, under plans by ministers to change the law amid a surge in crossings.
The Home Office is facing multiple legal actions for holding migrants at the tented asylum centre in Kent for more than the current statutory limit of 24 hours, after numbers hit 4,000 in November, almost three times its maximum capacity.
It comes after the numbers of migrants crossing the Channel this year are estimated to have passed 44,000, with around 800 on Wednesday following 884 on Tuesday and 426 on Monday. That compares with 28,500 for last year.
The legal change would mean that Channel migrants could be held for 72 hours or three days - and potentially 96 hours or four days - as a means to give officials more flexibility to process the migrants if they face further unprecedented surges in arrivals across the Channel. Both options are thought to be on the table.
Ministers are considering using a statutory instrument in Parliament to amend the “short term holding facility rules” which currently limit the time an asylum seeker can be held to “not more than 24 hours”. It can be extended to five days but only in “exceptional circumstances” and if authorised by the Home Secretary.
The move is likely to be challenged by lawyers as a breach of asylum seekers’ human rights. The Home Office is already facing five legal claims on behalf of migrants held beyond the 24 hours, which it is feared could cost the Government millions of pounds in compensation. Some had been held at the centre for four weeks.
A sensible change of rules
Ministers have overseen an overhaul of the centre since last month’s chronic overcrowding with the site virtually emptied of asylum seekers by Tuesday night despite the surge in numbers. Migrants are transferred to hotels or other accommodation.
However, Sir Roger Gale, the Tory MP whose North Thanet constituency covers the centre, backed a change in the rules as a sensible contingency.
“I don’t want anybody to be detained any longer than necessary but if you have a sudden influx and have to move them on, in certain circumstances it might take more than 24 hours especially if they have to be screened to ensure they have not got any infections,” he said.
“The idea that someone can sue the Government if you kept them at Manston for 36 hours rather than 24 hours and is entitled to compensation is plainly not right. It doesn’t make any sense given the cost to the taxpayer.”
At Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, Rishi Sunak promised to introduce “any new powers that we need to” to combat the Channel crossings. He was responding to Tory MP Paul Bristow who urged him to set up an emergency Cobra-style committee to tackle the “national emergency” of Channel crossings.
The Prime Minister said: “I share my honourable friend’s frustration and I want to reassure him that we will do whatever it takes to reduce the number of illegal crossings to this country [and] take any new powers that we need to.”
There was speculation on Wednesday night that Mr Sunak may have a one-to-one phone call with Edi Rama, the Albanian prime minister, on Thursday to discuss illegal migration. Albanians have accounted for more than 12,000 - or 30 per cent - of the Channel migrants this year.
Ministers are looking to develop a fast-track deportation route to return Albanians to a country they judge is “safe” while Mr Rama has been pushing for an agreement to include a German-style work visa scheme for Albanians to come to the UK. Number 10 last night downplayed the prospect of a call today.
There were reports on Wednesday of a number of cases of diphtheria among asylum seekers in Staffordshire where nine hotels are being used to house them. All migrants arriving in the UK are being offered vaccinations and those with symptoms can isolate in hotels or at special isolation units in Manston. There have been 50 confirmed cases so far.
A Government spokesman said: “Staff across the Home Office have worked tirelessly under challenging circumstances to source alternative accommodation as quickly as possible for those who have been processed at Manston.
“The site remains at acceptable capacity levels and improvements continue to be made to ensure it is well-resourced to process migrants safely and securely.
“The global migration crisis continues to place an unprecedented and unsustainable strain on our asylum system, which is why we remain focused on deterring illegal migration and disrupting the criminal gangs responsible for these dangerous crossings.”