Shayan Zal Dehnavi, 24, died by suicide in his Home Office hotel in September 2020.
the asylum seeker MEMORIAL project
This is a journalistic project bearing witness to the stories of those who have died while provided with asylum seeker housing in Britain since 2016.
Asylum seekers are generally barred from working while they await the result of their claim. Many can't afford to live. The Government has a duty to house them during this time.
In 2020, amid a growing backlog in asylum case decisions and the pressures of the pandemic, the Home Office expanded its use of contingency accommodation including ex-military barracks and hotels. In these and other types of asylum seeker housing – provided under contract by private firms Clearsprings Ready Homes, Mears, Serco - reports arose of poor living conditions and problems accessing medical care.
The Government doesn't publish data on deaths in this accommodation, so our journalists set out to gather it.
A Rising Death Toll
There were 107 deaths in Home Office housing between April 2016 and early May 2022. Eighty two of them took place since 2020. In several cases we reported with the Observer, there were alleged lapses of safeguarding codes.
We later uncovered a string of infant deaths since 2020. You can read about them in our stories with gal-dem and ITV News. At the end of August 2022, the death toll stood at 140.
Asylum seekers face complex social problems and may arrive with pre-existing conditions. The lack of detail in the data we collected makes it hard to attribute causes to the apparent high rates of death, but reports of poor conditions in hotels and other accommodation as well as difficulties accessing medical and other support may contribute.
'need for transparency'
Graham O’Neill, policy manager at the Scottish Refugee Council, which supplied some of the data we used, said: “This memorial models what the UK asylum system must do: recognise the humanity of all those who lost their lives and support loved ones in mourning, learn lessons to prevent further loss of life as much as possible, and be transparent and accountable to families, friends and the public.
“No one can prevent all loss of life but the UK asylum system must address its grim acceleration in recent years, to prevent the need for this memorial to exist.”
We included all the cases of asylum seekers we know to have died while provided with Home Office accommodation (including those who left shortly before their death, e.g. to go to hospital).
The key sources for this memorial are the Home Office's Incident Database, and a set of internal documents known as High Profile Notification (HPN) forms. These were obtained by Freedom of Information request. We also gathered inquest paperwork and spoke to friends and family where possible.
The deaths of unaccompanied child asylum seekers don’t appear in the data, likely because local authorities bear the duty to house them. Nor do the deaths of those with refugee status staying in Home Office hotels under schemes such as the Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy (Arap).
Deaths of asylum seekers detained at immigration removal centres or short-term holding facilities, such as Manston, are not recorded in this data.
The memorial is updated periodically and was last refreshed in June 2023. The next will be in October 2023.
“We all have a right to life, and deserve a chance and to be seen as a human being, not as an animal”
The daughter of "Andres", a 77-year-old Salvadoran who died in hospital after falling ill at his Home Office hotel
Mark Davies, Head of Communications and Campaigns at the Refugee Council, said: “It is hard to imagine many things more tragic than someone coming to the UK in desperate search of safety, often having endured a terrifying, life-threatening journey, only to die in asylum accommodation while waiting for a decision on their claim.
“The fact this is happening in increasing numbers is deeply troubling, and the Home Office must address this issue with urgency and transparency.
“We applaud this hugely important initiative and hope it will go some way in remembering and fighting for each of the men, women and children whose lives have been lost and remind everyone that for all the talk about statistics, there is always a face behind the case.”
This is a project by Liberty Investigates journalists Mirren Gidda, Jessica Purkiss and Aaron Walawalkar, and editor Eleanor Rose.
Our reporting was supplemented with data provided by the Scottish Refugee Council.
Liberty Investigates approached the Home Office and accommodation providers G4S, Mears, Clearsprings Ready Homes and Serco for a response to our reporting.
A spokesperson for Mears said: “The safety and welfare of our service users is of the utmost importance to Mears. We have accommodated around 100,000 service users since autumn 2019 and as with the general population, deaths of asylum seekers do occur. We extend our heartfelt sympathy to the family and friends of anyone who has died while in Mears accommodation.
"We continually review our approach and processes in seeking to provide the best accommodation and 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.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The welfare of asylum seekers is, and always will be, of the utmost importance to us. It is misleading to suggest that any death that occurs while someone is in the asylum system is a direct consequence of that system.
“We work closely with the NHS, local authorities, non-governmental organisations and contractors to ensure that asylum seekers can access the health care and support they need.”
Serco, G4S and Clearsprings Ready Homes declined to comment.
the asylum seeker memorial project
This is a project by Liberty Investigates.
Do you have information about an asylum seeker who has died? contact: