Manston asylum centre, the troubled Home Office site in Kent where people arriving in the UK in small boats are taken for initial checks, is understood to be completely empty, the Guardian has learned.

Just a few weeks ago about 4,000 arrivals were placed there by the Home Office, almost three times the maximum 1,600 capacity of the tented site in Ramsgate.

The news comes after a series of controversies at the site including drug-selling by guards, outbreaks of infectious diseases such as diphtheria, the stranding of asylum seekers in central London after their release from Manston, and the death of an asylum seeker placed there on Saturday.

The Prisons and Probation Ombudsman has confirmed it is investigating the death of the man, who arrived in the UK on a small boat on 12 November. His details have not yet been released and it is understood the Home Office is still trying to contact his next of kin.

Alongside this investigation, the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) has received a referral from the Home Office about the death. It told the Guardian it was too early to say whether this would result in an investigation.

Such investigations involving the Home Office are rare. The last was in 2018 following the death of a 23-year-old Sudanese man at a carwash in Newport, where he fell from a height following an immigration raid.

The Kent coroner has confirmed receipt of a referral about the case and is in the early stages of investigating it.

Human rights campaigners have raised concerns that the man who died was being held unlawfully at Manston at the time of his death. Small boat arrivals who are taken to Manston are supposed to be held there for only 24 hours. In exceptional circumstances this can be extended to five days but the man arrived on 12 November and died on 19 November.

The campaign group Action Against Detention and Deportations expressed concern that he was held “far longer than the legal limit of 24 hours”. A spokesperson for the group said: “This first death was entirely foreseeable. There is copious evidence that Manston is not fit for human habitation and falls far below even minimum standards for accommodation, healthcare and safeguarding.”

The Red Cross was carrying out a pilot project to support newly arrived asylum seekers on small boats at nearby Western Jet Foil two days a week from August until early October. It is understood it has raised concerns with the Home Office about both Western Jet Foil and Manston.

According to evidence from the Scottish Refugee Council to the independent commission of inquiry into asylum provision in Scotland published earlier this month, 142 asylum seekers have lost their lives in the UK between April 2016 and August 2022.

Emma Ginn, the director of the charity Medical Justice, which works to support the health of people in immigration detention, said: “The home secretary has been warned repeatedly that detaining vulnerable people beyond the 24-hour lawful limit in the terrible conditions at Manston has been harmful, putting thousands of men, women and children’s health at risk. So many questions and concerns about healthcare provision remain unanswered.”

Maddie Harris, of Humans for Rights Network, said: “Unaccompanied children who have recently been held in Manston have shared details with us of the appalling lack of medical care they were subjected to whilst held there.

“One child told us that two weeks ago whilst held there, he witnessed a person’s health deteriorated to the extent that he thought he was going to die. He and others held there told the guards repeatedly that this man was very sick and needed an ambulance immediately.

“He told us that for almost two days they did not call for an ambulance, despite him and many others screaming for help for the guards to do this. He was eventually rushed to hospital by ambulance.”

The Home Office has been approached for comment.

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