Dozens of asylum seekers who were officially recognised by the Home Office as vulnerable and potentially in need of protection have died in government accommodation, with previously undisclosed internal documents suggesting a number of the cases involved safeguarding failings.
New data obtained in a joint investigation by the Observer and Liberty Investigates has found at least 107 deaths of asylum seekers who were provided with Home Office housing between April 2016 and May 2022, far more than officially admitted. Eighty-two have died since January 2020.
At least 17 people died by suicide or suspected suicide, according to analysis of Home Office records released under information laws. Half of those who have died since the start of 2020 (41) were flagged as having a “safeguarding element” – a label officials assign to individuals recognised as having vulnerabilities or needs such as a health problem.
A department spokesperson denied that having a safeguarding flag meant a person needed protection. However, safeguarding is the term the Home Office uses to describe its responsibilities towards ensuring the safety of children and vulnerable adults in its accommodation.
One MP claimed their lives had been lost due to “cruelty and incompetence”. Another said the government had questions to answer.
There were four deaths in 2019, rising to 36 in 2020, 40 last year and six so far this year. A steady increase in the numbers accommodated by the Home Office does not appear to explain the steeply rising death rate.
Experts fear chances to save lives were missed. The details of several cases raise questions about apparent “systemic failures”, including potential gaps in safeguarding policies and alleged lapses following them.
Alistair Carmichael MP, Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesperson, added: “These revelations demand an urgent, independent inspection of the accommodation, healthcare and safeguarding provided [for] asylum seekers.”
Stephen Kinnock MP, Labour shadow minister for immigration, said: “Why has the number of deaths risen so sharply? What steps did the government take to ensure access to healthcare and other support? What safeguarding checks did they make?”
When Shayan Zal Dehnavi arrived in the UK in November 2019, fleeing persecution in Iran, he hoped he had finally reached safety. Within a year, the 23-year-old would kill himself.
Dehnavi initially stayed with family in London but when their relationship broke down, and he was refused permission to work, he turned to the Home Office for help. By law the department must provide housing and essential support for asylum seekers facing destitution.
The system works by placing asylum seekers in short-term initial accommodation while housing in the community, called dispersal accommodation, is provided. The target to arrange this is 35 days.
Dehnavi was placed in a hotel run by Serco in Leicester in May 2020. Conditions were “miserable”, according to Kamran (not his real name), who lived on the same floor.
Dehnavi suffered a particularly awful experience. Soon after arrival, he was stabbed in an apparently random attack near the hotel, which appears to have contributed to a mental health crisis. Kamran described seeing him “hysterical” the next day in the hotel corridor wearing only a hospital robe, shouting: “Where are my clothes?”
Serco’s safeguarding policy states victims of assault should be referred for support because it can cause long-lasting trauma. Staff raised the stabbing with the Home Office’s asylum safeguarding hub, as well as Migrant Help, a charity providing guidance for asylum seekers. Migrant Help said it contacted Dehnavi to offer “additional support” – he declined the offer – and then contacted Home Office officials and the accommodation provider.
Weeks later, in July 2020, Serco staff noted the young Iranian was “low in mood” and cut himself “while cooking”. The contractor said these events were, as guidance requires, reported to the Home Office, though did not respond when asked how or to which team. Staff “signposted” Dehnavi to a GP and offered assistance but this was also declined, a Serco spokesperson said.
Guidance says that when safeguarding concerns arise, an asylum seeker’s relocation to dispersal accommodation – where more support is available, including information to help them register with a GP – should be expedited.
Yet Dehnavi remained at the hotel for a further two months. On 7 September 2020, he was found hanged in his room. He had lived in the hotel for 103 days – more than three months in total; triple the Home Office target.
An internal form filed after his death reveals there was no note on the Home Office’s central case database to indicate “any safeguarding concerns or health concerns”, suggesting that if Serco staff did report Dehnavi’s problems, they were not recorded or responded to centrally.
Juliet Cohen, forensic physician and former head of doctors at Freedom from Torture, said the case raised serious concerns warranting a “thorough and independent investigation”. She added: “It was known that he had suffered a serious assault and there were signs that he had self-harmed, but it appears the proper safeguarding procedures were not followed.
“While not all suicides could be prevented … it is a concern that in this case – and perhaps in many others – chances were missed.”
It was not only mental health problems affecting asylum seekers at this time. Mohammed Camara, 26, from Ivory Coast, arrived in the UK in June 2020 and, following a spell in a detention centre, was placed in a hotel in north London run by Home Office contractor Clearsprings Ready Homes. He had been tortured in Ivory Coast and Libya and was suffering pain throughout his body, particularly in his back.
“It got worse and worse,” recalled Moussa (not his real name), a friend from the same hotel. Camara approached staff every day for help, according to another friend. “He was told he couldn’t go to hospital or to a doctor,” said Moussa. Staff allegedly said this was due to Covid-19.
On 10 November, when Camara had been staying at the hotel for 38 days, Tia Bush – a Care4Calais volunteer who was helping residents register with a GP – received a call in the early morning from Camara’s friend. “I remember him repeating: ‘C’est trop tard [It’s too late]’,” she said. Camara had died in his room after a cardiac arrest.
The Home Office failed to inform Camara’s hotel of his needs, lawyers for his family claimed. A doctor had deemed Camara an adult at risk after finding scars “suggesting of savage beatings” and he had been identified as a potential victim of modern slavery by the Home Office’s National Referral Mechanism. According to the asylum accommodation contract, he should have received additional consideration.
A coroner found there was “no connection between Mr Camara’s death and the back pain he suffered”, though they accepted Camara had requested help.
Friends still believe Camara could have been saved. Moussa said: “If he had just one chance [to get medical help], things could have been different.” Clearsprings Ready Homes declined to comment.
A Home Office spokesman 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.”
Migrant Help added: “We recognised the changes brought on by the pandemic and the effect these might have on our clients … we introduced additional training around mental health and wellbeing and brought in additional information to cope with the changes in environment.”
Unlike in prisons and immigration detention, the Home Office doesn’t publish the numbers of deaths of asylum seekers in its housing, and inquests typically take place only when a death is deemed unnatural.
Stuart McDonald, MP and SNP shadow home affairs spokesperson, called for the regular publication of figures on these deaths. “The fact that so many vulnerable people are losing their lives, while supposedly in the care of the Home Office, is scandalous – and it is essential for there to be transparency and accountability about why this is happening.
“What is also deeply troubling is that the huge increase in deaths coincides with significantly increased use of institutional accommodation instead of community housing. Yet this is precisely the model that the UK government is seeking to move towards, alongside its appalling Rwanda plans.”
Sabir Zazai, chief executive of the Scottish Refugee Council, said: “The people who died in the asylum system matter. They are not simply numbers in a system … 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.”
For those who knew the people who died, the grief is raw. “It is still unbelievable for us,” said Faranak Amini, the wife of Dehnavi’s cousin. “If something had been done for him, maybe he would still be alive.”
Outside the hotel Dehnavi stayed in, friends assembled a shrine – the only sign he had lived there, according to his neighbour, Kamran. “It is as if he never stayed on this floor or in this hotel,” Kamran wrote in a complaint email two days after the death to Serco, which holds the contract for running the hotel. “If his friends didn’t put a picture of him outside the hotel in a corner, with some candles, I would have kept wondering what happened to him. Does our life, our mental health, our problems matter in any way, or not?”