Data obtained by gal-dem and Liberty Investigates finds seven babies born to mothers provided with Home Office accommodation have died since 2020.
Content warning: This article contains mention of sexual assault, miscarriage and infant death.
Maria Wetu was heavily pregnant when she arrived at a residence for asylum seekers in London, in spring 2020. It had been a harrowing journey.
Fleeing an abusive relationship in Angola, the 24-year-old had arrived in the UK just weeks earlier – only, she alleges, to be sexually abused by a man. She claims she escaped with the help of hospital staff who called the police, then she filed an asylum claim and was placed in state-supported housing.
On 13 April, soon after her arrival at the residence managed by Clearsprings Ready Homes, Wetu began suffering abdominal pains and asked reception staff to call an ambulance. Under their contract with the Home Office, providers of asylum accommodation are required to help residents access medical care in urgent situations. They refused to make the call, she claims.
By then, Wetu was in so much pain she could barely talk. Reception staff agreed to dial 999 but insisted Wetu speak to the call handlers herself, she recalls. Her English is limited, and she couldn’t understand their questions. She began to bleed heavily, prompting reception staff to finally call for an ambulance on her behalf.
When she reached the hospital, she learned her baby daughter, her firstborn – delivered at 34 weeks – had died. “Nothing will ever replace the pain of not holding that child in my arms,” she says. “Losing a child is like a tattoo. It never leaves you.”
Wetu is speaking under her own name for the first time after disclosures obtained by gal-dem and Liberty Investigates reveal that between October 2017 and May 2022, eight babies born live to asylum seekers living in Home Office accommodation died before reaching their first birthday.
Seven of the deaths took place since May 2020. Around this time, the asylum seeker accommodation system was coming under strain from a backlog in asylum decisions. The Home Office also temporarily stopped withdrawing support from those whose claims were decided so that they wouldn’t be left homeless during the pandemic. The government started using hotels and military barracks as emergency housing, yet reports emerged that some of these were akin to ‘detention centres’ and sometimes unsafe.
A further disclosure released using the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) revealed a further two deaths of asylum seekers’ babies in August 2022, but their exact ages weren’t clear.
The numbers also reveal only part of the picture of infant tragedies among asylum seekers. Wetu’s stillborn daughter, for example, is missing from the disclosure because the Home Office doesn’t collect figures about the miscarriages or stillbirths of asylum seekers living in its accommodation.
The revelations are “hugely concerning” and “should set alarm bells ringing”, says Kirsty Kitchen, head of policy at the charity Birth Companions.
“It is shocking that asylum seekers and their babies appear to be being so neglected in a country which should be offering them a place of safety and sanctuary,” says Alison Thewliss, MP for Glasgow Central and the chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Immigration Detention.
“Between October 2017 and May 2022, eight babies born live to asylum seekers living in Home Office accommodation died before reaching their first birthday”
The new data comes amid campaigners’ fears that apparent failures in the support of pregnant asylum seekers – especially since the start of the pandemic in early 2020 – may pose potential risks to their health, and that lives may be at risk in the accommodation run by private providers.
Updated 25 June 2022: Guardian/Observer: Revealed: dozens of vulnerable asylum seekers have died in Home Office housing since 2020
Data shows number of deaths is higher than admitted as experts question safeguarding and fear chances to save lives were missed
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.”
22 June 2022: New co-research by Solidarities into asylum housing and dispersal policy: Asylum Housing in Yorkshire: A case study of two dispersal areas
The Migrants and Solidarities research project, a cross-European partnership, carried out co-research into asylum dispersal housing in Yorkshire alongside researchers with lived experience from two of our partner organisations, Doncaster Conversation Club and St Augustine’s Centre Halifax.
The co-researchers reported on the impacts of poor quality housing, inability to resolve issues and the challenges of accessing support and services for those dispersed to small, isolated villages, making important recommendations on how the asylum housing dispersal system could be improved.
You can read the full report, ‘Asylum Housing in Yorkshire: A case study of two dispersal areas’ here https://solidarities.net/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/Report_Online-1.pdf, a summary by researcher Mette Berg here https://solidarities.net/asylum-in-difficult-times/, and share on social media here https://twitter.com/Solidarities_/status/1539178741531803649.