Seven asylum seeker suicides recorded in Home Office housing in less than four months

A view of the Bibby Stockholm accommodation barge, which will house up to 500 asylum seekers, at Portland Port in Dorset, England, Friday, July 21, 2023. The barge Bibby Stockholm pulled into Portland harbor on Tuesday after the government's legislation f
A'heartbreaking' spate of suicides or suspected suicides over one 15 week period last year claimed the lives of seven people with outstanding asylum claims

By Harriet Clugston and Aaron Walawalkar for Liberty Investigates, and Cahal Milmo for the i.


Seven asylum seekers are thought to have died in a spate of suicides in Home Office housing in under four months last year after waiting an average of 388 days in the asylum claim backlog, i and Liberty Investigates can reveal.

The suspected suicide of Albanian national Leonard Farruku on the controversial Bibby Stockholm barge last December catapulted the welfare of asylum seekers in temporary government housing back into the spotlight, with campaigners calling for the barge’s immediate closure.

But new figures compiled by i and Liberty Investigates reveal his death was actually the seventh in a string of confirmed or suspected suicides that occurred in quick succession over one 15-week period between 31st August and 12th December – a rate of around one a fortnight.

They include a 20-year-old gay woman who died after fleeing her native Oman over its repressive laws against homosexuality and a 29-year-old Somalian man who died by suspected suicide while in police custody after waiting almost two and a half years for his case to be dealt with.

In May, i revealed the case of Ismael Maolanzadeh, a 19-year-old Iranian Kurd who died by suicide in a Birmingham hotel room in December. His older brother Mustafa, who discovered his sibling’s body, said an absence of information about the fate of their asylum claims had tipped Ismael into a fatal depression.

Data about suicides among asylum seekers is not routinely published by the Home Office and is only available after freedom of information requests by reporters.

‘Alarmed and saddened’

The new figures come just weeks after Home Secretary James Cleverly drew condemnation from medics and human rights campaigners after appearing to suggest asylum seekers were lying about being suicidal, when questioned by ITV News about a rise in suicide attempts among people housed at the repurposed RAF Wethersfield base.

“The simple truth is, often when people come to this country illegally they do lie to further their own causes,” he said. Cleverly’s office declined to comment when presented with the new figures, but a Home Office spokesperson said the mental health needs of asylum seekers was taken “seriously”.

Medecins Sans Frontieres UK and Doctors of the World, whose clinicians have warned of a “mental health crisis” among those they have treated at Wethersfield, said they “strongly refute” Cleverly’s characterisation of asylum seekers being “disingenuous” about mental health issues.

They are “alarmed and saddened to learn of the multiple deaths” in asylum accommodation last year, a spokesperson for the charities said, adding: “Although there are clear differences between hotels and containment sites, the often poor living conditions, safeguarding failures, and extended delays people experience lead to various levels of anguish and mental health issues.”

Youngest victim just 19

Britain does not record asylum or refugee status as part of the death registration process, nor does the government routinely collect data on suicides among the same groups – a situation which mental health campaigners have warned must change.

The median age of the seven people who died at the end of last year was 27. The youngest was just 19, and the oldest 63.

All had outstanding asylum claims awaiting a decision, and four were living in hotels, which are intended to be used on a short term basis before residents are moved into longer-term housing in the community.

The backlog of asylum claims rose dramatically between 2018 and 2022 from 27,000 to 132,000 cases, before falling last year by 28% at the end of 2023. Of the around 95,000 people waiting for an initial decision in December, some 61% had been waiting more than six months.

Imran Hussain, executive director of communications at the Refugee Council, said i and Liberty Investigates’ findings were “very concerning”, adding: “The idea of someone fleeing war and persecution in their home country and enduring a terrifying journey to find safety in the UK, only to then take their life while in the asylum system, is heartbreaking.”

Among them was 20-year-old Rima Al-Badi, a reportedly lesbian woman who had fled from Oman and submitted an asylum claim 469 days previously.  She is believed to have been living in a hotel in London.

A social media profile reviewed by reporters appears to show Rima discussing her sexuality, atheist beliefs,  saying that she feared recriminations and had no future in Oman, where homosexuality is illegal.

Nabhan al-Hanshi, a human rights campaigner from the Omani Centre for Human Rights, who met with Rima in the days before her death, told reporters she was depressed she still had not had a Home Office interview.

“She said: ‘Why is it taking that long time? Why they are not interviewing [me]?’” he said. “I told her this is the process in the UK.”

Overall, eight people are thought to have died by suicide in 2023 making it the worst year on record since Liberty Investigates began compiling figures dating back to 2016.

The figures may be an undercount, as they are reliant on the Home Office recording information in an internal database used to track potentially high profile incidents involving asylum seekers.

Some have been confirmed as suicides by a coroner, while some are still awaiting an inquest outcome, and others have been flagged by the Home Office as suspected suicide.

Friends and charity workers familiar with two further individuals who died in 2023 have previously raised the possibility their deaths could also have been self-inflicted, including one of 24-year-old Eritrean man Solomon Dawit – flagged as a suspected suicide by the Home Office but later ruled a case of accidental drowning by a coroner in an inquest hearing lasting 18 minutes and 50 seconds which was based on written evidence only and contained no testimony from those who knew him. A cache of court documents reviewed by reporters shows a note found in the man’s room which appeared to show he was experiencing some emotional distress.  An inquest is pending into the other case.

While the Home Office did not reveal the names or exact locations of the people affected, reporters have been able to identify five of the seven from media reports, information passed by sources, or tracking them down through enquiries to coroners and emergency services.

The recent deaths include:

  • 20-year-old Rima Al-Badi, a reportedly queer or gay woman from Oman. She was housed in a hotel, and died by suspected suicide on or around 31 August, after waiting 469 days for an asylum decision.
  • An unnamed 20-year-old male from Iraq, who died of suspected suicide on or around 12 September after a 634 day wait.
  • Irakli Kapanadze, a 37-year-old Georgian. He had been waiting on a decision for almost a year, with a coroner noting he had been prevented from working and was isolated by language difficulties. He died by hanging on 14 September at his hotel.
  • An unnamed 29-year-old Somalian man died by suspected suicide in police custody after an 829-day wait. He was due to stand trial for allegedly stabbing another asylum seeker. He died on 9 October.
  • 63-year-old Colombian Victor Hugo Pereira Vargas. Liberty Investigates has seen documents that raised questions about possible safeguarding failures prior to his death. He died on 13th October by suspected suicide.
  • 19-year-old Kurdish Iranian national Ismael Maolanzadeh, who died by hanging on 10 December after a four month stay at a hotel. Liberty Investigates previously reported on concerns his suicide was ‘swept under the carpet’ by a superficial inquest that involved no public hearing and prevented his brother from giving evidence about the impact of the asylum system on his mental health.
  • Albanian Leonard Farruku, 27, who died by suspected suicide on 12 December. His family are reported to have said they were not aware of any mental health issues before he was placed on the Bibby Stockholm

Earlier this month a coroner investigating the death of Mr Pereira said he planned to pursue an enhanced probe known as an Article 2 inquest, held to investigate whether the state may have failed to protect someone from harm under international human rights rules. The Home Office told a hearing it would oppose such a move because it did not believe human rights issues were relevant to the case.

It emerged during the hearing that Clearsprings, a private firm that operates asylum accommodation for the Home Office, had outsourced the contract to another company – which had then outsourced it to a third company, that owned the hotel Mr Pereira was housed in.

There appeared to be confusion about which company had a contractual duty for safeguarding, when the parties were questioned by the coroner.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “We take the health and wellbeing of asylum seekers seriously and at every stage in the process seek to ensure that all needs and vulnerabilities are identified and considered, including those related to mental health and trauma.”

They added that the Home Office would always fully cooperate with any investigation into an individual’s death.

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An alternative version of this article was published with inews.