Dozens of at-risk asylum seekers died during pandemic amid alleged safeguarding failings

Glasgow, Scotland, UK. 26th June, 2021. On the anniversary of the events at The Park Inn Hotel members of Refugees For Justice gather in George Square to commemorate people seeking asylum who lost their lives during lockdown. Credit: Skully/Alamy Live News
107 asylum seekers provided Home Office housing died between April 2016 and May 2022

Reports Jessica Purkiss, Aaron Walawalkar and Mirren Gidda, Liberty Investigates journalists; and Eleanor Rose, Liberty Investigates editor


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 grave questions to answer.

Shayan Zal Dehnavi, 24, was reported to be 'low in mood' before killing himself in September 2020

Deaths leapt from four in 2019, rising to 36 in 2020, 40 last year with 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 to 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?”

This graph shows annual fatalities of asylum seekers who were in receipt of Home office accommodation

When Shayan Zal Dehnavi arrived in the UK in November 2019 fleeing persecution in Iran he hoped he’d finally reached safety. Within a year, the 23-year-old would be dead by suicide.

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 to 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 miserable 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?”

A High Profile Notification form for Zal Dehnavi's death shows the Home Office was worried his suicide could cause "reputational damage" and generate "media attention"

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 to asylum seekers. Migrant Help said they 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 seekers’ 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 September 7, 2020 he was found hanging 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 in the aftermath of 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.”

Mohammed Camara, who died in 2020. His lawyers said his case raises 'systemic failures'

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 was placed in a hotel in North London run by Home Office contractor Clearsprings Ready Homes. He’d been tortured back in Ivory Coast and Libya, and was suffering pain throughout his body, particularly his back.

“It got worse and worse,” recalled Moussa (not his real name), a friend staying at the same hotel. Camara approached staff every day for help, according to another friend. “He was always 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 by 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: “What I can’t stop thinking about is if he had just one chance [to get medical help], things could have been different.” Clearsprings Ready Homes declined to comment.

“What I can’t stop thinking about is if he had just one chance ... things could have been different”

Moussa, a friend of Mohammed Camara

“People going through the UK asylum system have very poor access to medical care and are left to manage medical conditions alone,” said Anna Miller, head of policy and advocacy at healthcare charity Doctors of the World.

“Despite being entitled to NHS services, people in the asylum system are often held in accommodation sites for months on end, unable to register with a GP or see a doctor.”

In another case, the family of Salvadoran asylum seeker Andrés (name changed at the request of family), 77, who died from Covid-19, also claim their pleas for help from staff at their hotel in West Yorkshire, run by Home Office contractor Mears, were ignored.

Following the onset of symptoms on 23 April 2020, Andres’ grandson claimed Andres asked for medical help three times. On April 30, a nurse visited but concluded he had a cold and, according to his family, did not do a Covid test. When his daughter spoke to Andres on May 5, his condition had deteriorated and he was crying. “It was so sad,” she said. “He couldn’t move and said he felt very ill and alone.”

After his grandson asked the hotel manager for help, Andrés was taken by taxi to see a GP and was admitted to hospital, where he died ten days later. Hospital records suggest he had endured two weeks of shortness of breath by the time he was admitted. “The time [support staff] let pass, I think that it affected his health a lot,” said his grandson. “I think if the care had been quicker, maybe he would still be alive.”

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.”

A spokesperson for Mears said: “The safety and welfare of our service users is of the utmost importance …  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.”

Migrant Help added: “We recognised the changes brought on by the Covid 19 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.”

A screenshot of internal meeting minutes
Internal minutes from a Home Office safeguarding meeting flag concerns about the impact of hotel stays on people's mental health

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 deaths in asylum seeker accommodation. “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 the dark 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?”

If you are in the UK or Ireland and are having suicidal thoughts, suffering from anxiety or depression, or just want to talk, you can call the Samaritans helpline on 116 123 116 123 or email (UK) or (Ireland)

This story was published in partnership with the Observer.