A total of 16 people seeking asylum in the UK died in the six months before lockdown, leading to a call for the “institutionally racist” Home Office to be scrapped to save lives.
The figure was released by the Home Office under freedom of information (FoI) law, and has not previously been published. The 16 deaths occurred between September 2019 and March 2020, at a rate of almost three a month.
Politicians and refugee organisations described the number of deaths as “deeply troubling”. They said that the high profile deaths of three asylum seekers in Glasgow in 2020 no longer looked like isolated tragedies.
Those deaths included that of Mercy Baguma from Uganda, whose body was found with her toddler at her side in August. It is understood that she was due to be transferred to a flat, provided on behalf of the Home Office by Mears Group, that week.
Syrian Adnan Olbeh, 30, was found dead in his room at McLays Guest House in Glasgow, where he was accommodated by Mears as part of its response to Covid-19, in early May.
Those working with refugees have been warning for months that the decision to move vulnerable people into “institutionalised” accommodation in the midst of the pandemic could end in disaster.
Less than eight weeks later, Badreddin Abadlla Adam from Sudan was shot dead by police after his attack at the Park Inn Hotel on 26 June, which left six people injured. He was reportedly struggling with his mental health.
In September all seven Glasgow MPs wrote to the Lord Advocate, calling for a public inquiry into the deaths to address “escalating public concerns” and prevent further tragedies.
Chris Stephens, SNP MP for Glasgow South West, said the new UK-wide figure underlined the urgent need for an investigation.
It is not known how the 16 people died or where in the UK they were living, although The Ferret is aware that at least one of the deaths during the period was in Glasgow.
The FoI response also confirmed that the Home Office does not make any payments to assist with funeral or repatriation costs after an asylum seeker has died.
Campaigners have demanded greater transparency about the circumstances in which people in the asylum system died. They also called for the Home Office to put in place policies to ensure that deaths in its care were investigated thoroughly and promptly with support offered to loved ones making funeral and repatriation arrangements.
Stuart MacDonald MP, the SNP’s asylum spokesperson, called for figures on deaths in the system to be published on an ongoing basis.
“Sixteen deaths in the asylum system in only six months is shocking and deeply troubling,” he said.
“Behind the numbers are really vulnerable people who sought our protection and whose families and friends have lost a loved one.”
He added: “That we don’t know what happened to them speaks to an abysmal lack of transparency. It should not take FoIs to secure this information – openness and accountability are vital if we are to keep vulnerable people as safe as possible.”
Scottish Greens co-leader and Glasgow MSP Patrick Harvie claimed the UK’s “racist immigration system is killing people”. He raised concerns about the decision of Mears Group to put more than 400 people in hotels across the city just before lockdown restrictions were introduced back in March.
Many were moved out of flats. All cash support was stopped and meals provided in communal dining rooms.
On 1 October an outbreak of Covid-19 was reported at McLays Guest house and 44 asylum seekers were initially told to self-isolate in their rooms. On 3 October all but 11 were told this was no longer necessary, though tests were not offered.
Harvie added of the new figures: “These sixteen people lost their lives before covid restrictions, but we know that since then hundreds were moved into inadequate temporary accommodation in Glasgow and elsewhere, with some locked down because of covid outbreaks.
“There is a serious and urgent risk that this number could be far higher in current circumstances.
“What other dark secrets is it hiding? The department is institutionally racist and should be scrapped and replaced with something that respects dignity and human rights. Such a move would save lives.”
Last week it emerged that Home Secretary Priti Patel and officials had proposed a range of “brainstormed” draconian policies, which critics have claimed take the hostile immigration environment to another level.
Proposals leaked included sending asylum seekers to have their claims “processed” on the remote Ascension Island, a UK territory more than 4,000 miles away. Others included housing them on disused oil platforms and retired ferries, which First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said treated people seeking asylum as “cattle in a holding pen”.
Harvie claimed these were the type of far right policies associated with fascist parties and said it underlined that the department could not be trusted.
Home Office offers no help after death
Robina Qureshi, chief executive of Positive Action in Housing, has dealt with far too many tragedies in the years she has been working with asylum seekers. “We’ve been involved in four or five burials or repatriations now,” she says. Though local authorities and the NHS can help, the lack of Home Office assistance means that organisations like hers often step in.
After the death of 30-year-old Adnan Olbeh, a Syrian who had been imprisoned and tortured and was said to be struggling with his mental health, they raised money for a funeral held at the Glasgow Central Mosque. In the event, the mosque refused to take the money, which went to the family.
Due to Covid-19 restrictions it was attended by just six or seven people, according to his friend who was also living at McLays Guest house.
The two men, both from Syria, met sleeping at a Glasgow night shelter, and ended up in the hotel, Olbeh in room 50, his friend just down the corridor.
They confided in each other. Olbeh was struggling, trauma from his past haunting him. “But he had dreams,” says his friend.
“After he died they [staff] knocked everyone’s door and told them they didn’t need to worry because he hadn’t died of coronavirus so everyone was safe. It made me feel like they didn’t care about his death. I was so angry and frustrated by the way it was handled.“
For Olbeh’s mother, it’s hard to mourn her son when his body is buried thousands of miles away, adds Qureshi. “His mother wants to come to Scotland, she wants to be able to pray at her son’s grave,” she says.
“That a very important thing for a Muslim to be able to do. She has so many questions about how her son died. She says she doesn’t understand it.”
The death came to light, not due to a statement from the Home Office, but after campaigners discovered what had happened several days later. “Mercy’s story could also have ended up going under the radar,” says Qureshi.
“If someone dies in the care of the Home Office or in the detention estate it’s a public interest matter.
“Now we find 16 people have died, but what were the circumstances? Some of those may have been highlighted but others may not.” People should know, she says, so that all of them can be remembered.
The MP Chris Stephens, whose office previously assisted Baguma with her asylum claim, said there was a pressing need to know more about why people had died while in the care of the Home Office. “Some might be due to underlying health conditions but others may have taken their own lives,” he added.
“My real concern is that asylum seekers simply don’t get adequate health care and that includes mental health support. These people have gone through things that we just can’t possibly imagine.”
Human rights lawyer Aamer Anwar added: “If the Home Office was running a civilised system that was fair and accountable it would have nothing to fear in terms of publishing figures about asylum seekers dying. People have a right to know.”
The destructive impact of the asylum system on people’s mental health is well documented. According to the Mental Health Foundation asylum seekers are five times more likely to have mental health needs than the general population and more than 61 per cent will experience serious mental distress.
Factors that make them more vulnerable include experiences of trauma, such as torture, detention, or experiences of violence both in their countries of origin – such as Syria, South Sudan, Iran and El Salvador – and on treacherous journeys to the UK, often facilitated by people smugglers. Once in the UK, and separated from loved ones back home, they are unable to work and live in uncertainty and poverty, often for many years.
Fiona Crombie, a psychotherapist and manager of Freedom from Torture in Scotland, which supports asylum seekers in mental distress, feared that figures for the next six months could be higher still. “We are currently sitting on a mental health time bomb,” she told The Ferret. “We’re seeing a significant decline in mental health levels in the course of lockdown.”
NHS services, she claimed, had been “overwhelmed” by the level of need making it almost impossible for new referrals to be accepted.
Meanwhile those still in hotel accommodation are struggling, with young people in particular finding it hard to cope, she added. Of particular concern are those in McLays Guest House in Glasgow, three of whom have coronavirus and eight are still self-isolating.
“I have a very high level of concern for people currently,” she said. “We’ve already seen the death of Adnan, a very vulnerable person possibly with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Now in the same hotel we have people being told to isolate in small rooms. For anyone who has been held captive for example, this could be extremely triggering.
“It’s imperative that people are moved out of hotels and back into appropriate accommodation with one or two people.”
Dylan Fotoohi, co-founder of campaign group Refugees for Justice, said the lack of safety within the system was highlighted by the number of deaths revealed.
He added: “The system is unsafe physically, especially during the pandemic as we saw with the lockdown in McLay’s Guest House. Even outwith covid it is unsafe psychologically – now that is just amplified.
“As an asylum seeker you have to rely on the Home Office and a private [housing] company for the level of support that you need. The system doesn’t afford people the same rights as other people. That’s all that we’ve ever been asking for – equal rights and to live with dignity.”
Mears group confirmed that about 200 asylum seekers were currently in three hotels across Glasgow, though many who had been there since March or April of this year have now been moved to flats.
It claimed all health and mental health concerns were dealt with by the NHS Asylum Health Bridging Team, with referrals made to other services as appropriate.
A company spokesman added: “Mears is committed to ending the use of hotels as soon as possible. The major constraint is the availability of suitable vacant accommodation.
“We have been working closely with Glasgow City Council, who approve the procurement of all accommodation used for housing asylum seekers.”
A spokesperson for the Home Office said: “We are saddened to hear of the death of any individual in asylum accommodation. Our thoughts are with their loved ones and support is available from a number of organisations to help those affected.
“The health and wellbeing of asylum seekers has and always will be the priority, and we will continue to provide support to those that need it. In the event that an investigation is launched, the Home Office works closely with the police and coroners.”
The freedom of information response from the Home Office
Photo thanks to Becky Duncan /Open Aye. This story was published in tandem with the Sunday National.