An escalating number of deaths in the asylum system are being “brushed under the carpet” it has been claimed, as data obtained from the Home Office shows that ten asylum seekers have died in Scotland since May 2020.
The figures were obtained by Liberty Investigates under freedom of information legislation, in combination with The Ferret’s own investigation.
A Home Office database showed that in total 107 asylum seekers across the UK who were provided with Home Office accommodation have died since April 2016. Of those 82 – just over three quarters – have died since 2020.
The data included 11 deaths in Scotland over five years, who were all under 60-years-old. The Ferret is aware of one more death in the time period. Here too, deaths have escalated sharply since 2020.
Campaigners claim there has been a lack of accountability and that the deaths were not properly investigated meaning lessons that could save the lives of others have not been learned.
They repeated calls for an urgent inquiry into deaths in the asylum system and claimed the figures further evidenced that the asylum system – with its growing reliance on the use of institutional accommodation – was “unsafe”.
However the Home Office said the deaths occured “for a number of reasons, including natural causes and terminal illness” and that to speculate otherwise would be “misleading”.
Anonymised deaths listed in the Home Office database include that of Mercy Baguma, a 34-year-old asylum seeker from Uganda. She was found dead at her flat in August 2020 with her 18-month-old son, reportedly malnourished, beside her.
In total 17 of the deaths across the UK were recorded as self/harm suicide cases with 10 since the start of 2020.
Shortly after his death the Ferret reported on claims from friends at the hotel that he had repeatedly expressed suicidal thoughts in the lead-up to his death and was struggling to cope.
A Home Office incident report, also released under freedom of information, reveals that Adnan had been “known” to the Home Office’s safeguarding team.
The report details that he was hospitalised due to suicidal thoughts on 21 April 2020 at which point his solicitor disclosed there had been three attempts on his own life, including while held in Dungavel Immigration Detention Centre.
Despite Elbi’s vulnerability he was placed back in the room at McLay’s where he was given mental health support and medication. He died two weeks later.
A Mears’ incident report, also released to Liberty Investigates, evidences previous reports made by residents that they had already raised the alarm about violent and threatening behaviour by the Sudanese asylum seeker.
The staff member did not escalate the concern as required by the company’s own guidelines, which campaigners claim meant an opportunity to intervene was missed.
Other deaths include that of Parveen Begum Ashraf, from Pakistan, who died of a suspected heart attack. She had been destitute for many years and was appealing a Home Office refusal of her asylum claim.
In a tribute at the time Robina Qureshi, chief executive of Positive Action in Housing, said she had “suffered immensely because of the asylum policy in this country”.
Harvey Winn Wittika, a 37-year-old man from Malawi who fell to his death from his balcony in August 2021, is not included in the database. But The Ferret understands he was also seeking asylum. An investigation by the procurator fiscal is ongoing.
In the same month an asylum seeker from Zimbabwe died of Covid-19. Other deaths include that of a five-week-old baby, who became ill at home and later died in hospital. Another baby died shortly after birth.
The Ferret has not been able to verify the names in these cases.
Another unnamed 30-year-old man from Ethiopia died in 2019 after jumping into the Clyde and drowning during a police chase. He had been staying at a homeless hostel after being bailed from prison and police had been called following a “disturbance”.
Qureshi confirmed her charity is providing ongoing help to several families of those who died while in the asylum system as well as others struggling to cope.
She said: “The Home Office will underplay and undermine any failures rather than answer questions about asylum deaths honestly. Meanwhile we are being asked to help people in crisis every day, with the risk of further deaths.
“There is no duty of care. The hard reality is if your landlord is a Home Office provider you have no guarantee of being safe. Charities are dealing with one emergency after another.”
Last year Positive Action in Housing spent nearly five months advocating for a family with an autistic child who was able to open the windows in the flat where they were housed. They were found dangling their legs out of the second floor window. “That could have been another death,” added Qureshi.
A spokesman for Mears told The Ferret: “Following concerns raised about one of [the asylum seeking mother’s] children playing with the windows, new restrictors were fitted until alternative ground floor accommodation could be arranged.”
Dylan Fotoohi of Refugees For Justice, said it was “painful to see the level of harm the system inflicts on people who are asylum seekers and refugees in the UK”.
His organisation, which was set up in response to the tragedy at the Park Inn, has been calling for an independent investigation into deaths in the asylum system, which has so far not been forthcoming.
He said many deaths were preventable claiming they caused “irreparable psychological and physical harm” and were “the direct result of the privatised and for-profit provision of asylum accommodation and support in the UK”.
In reply the Home Office said it is “misleading” to make this link as not everyone who died was in its accommodation at the time.
However Fotoohi added: “We have lived and suffered these conditions and we have grieved the deaths of our friends. The UK authorities and duty bearers are keen to brush these under the carpet rather than to investigate, to learn the lessons, and to improve the system to prevent further tragedies.”
He called for the revelations to be a turning point leading to improvements in the system.
“It doesn’t have to be like this,” he added. Asylum support and accommodation is a public service and it should be provided by local authorities in line with housing and care standards and legislations.”
The escalating death rate coincides with an increased use of institutional accommodation with asylum seekers housed in former army barracks in the south of England and in often rundown hotels across the UK.
In Scotland some asylum seekers are housed for months in hotels in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Perth, Falkirk, East Kilbride and Aberdeen, where they are provided with £8 per week as well as meals. Rooms are often overcrowded.
In April 2020 hundreds of asylum seekers in Glasgow were moved into hotels by Mears Group, who said the plan was part of its Covid-19 response. Hotels then used included some tourist chains.
But asylum seekers housed there said that living in limbo in a hotel room without financial support had a detrimental impact on their mental health regardless.
Siraj was at the Park Inn hotel from April 2020 and witnessed the stabbings in June – he asked not to use his second name. “The impact of being in the hotel was bad. We never knew what would happen tomorrow,” he said.
“No-one was coping well and there was a real feeling of tension. The mood was unstable – lots of people there had post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“I want to be fair and say the staff did sometimes help. But the issue was they had taken our freedom away. We felt like we were prisoners.”
He claims that witnessing the incident has had an ongoing effect. “After the incident I had nightmares and I couldn’t sleep,” he added. “I asked for counselling but I’m still waiting.
“I really want to see accountability for what happened. Careless mistakes were made.”
Sabir Zazai, chief executive of Scottish Refugee Council, said: “People seeking refugee protection in the UK arrive with the hope of living in dignity and safety and dreams of rebuilding their lives. For these lives to have ended this way is devastating.”
He claimed what people who had escaped wars and other violent conflicts needed was “a home, a basis for stability and peace of mind” and claimed this could not be provided by hotel rooms or dormitories in former army barracks.
“A humane and rational system would prioritise the wellbeing of those in its care,” he added. “We need to see a robust system put into place which takes account of every loss of life in the asylum system and the circumstances around it, so that lessons can be learned to prevent future deaths.”
Paul Sweeney, Labour MSP and chair of the Scottish Parliament’s cross party group on migration, said: “The high death rate within our asylum system must be investigated fully. My heart goes out to the families and loved ones of those who have sadly lost their lives over the years while seeking asylum in the U.K.
“It’s time for a reset of how we treat asylum seekers. We don’t need to send them to Rwanda, we need to give them the right to work. Asylum seekers can contribute so much to our society. We should be embracing their talents and integrating, not treating them like prisoners.”
A Mears spokesperson said: “The safety and welfare of our service users is of the utmost importance to Mears.
“We continually review our approach and processes in seeking to provide the best support to our service users and we work closely with all stakeholders, including the Home Office, public health authorities, local councils, and third sector bodies to this end.”
The company spokesperson also said that because the cases of Adnan Olbeh and Badreddin Abadlla Adam remain subject to investigations by the Scottish authorities it would “not be appropriate” to comment further.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Our thoughts and sympathies are with the families of any asylum seeker who has died. Although the Home Office has had to use an unprecedented number of hotels as a result of the enormous pressures of the pandemic and increase in small boats crossings, the welfare of asylum seekers has and always will be of the utmost importance.
“Like in the general population, deaths can occur because of a number of reasons, including natural causes and terminal illness. To speculate otherwise is misleading.”
It takes the welfare of asylum seekers “extremely seriously” they added, “including those related to mental health and trauma”.
Cover image of Mercy Beguma thanks to Becky Duncan
This investigation was published in tandem with the Sunday National.