A new report by the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) has documented the deaths of 77 asylum seekers in the UK, painting a tragic picture of the human cost of Britain’s draconian asylum system.
The deaths, which all took place in the last four years, are attributed to racist asylum and immigration policies. The number is rising, with one asylum seeker death each month.
The report makes bleak reading. Of the deaths, more than a third (28) were suicides following rejected asylum claims. Seven people died after being denied healthcare for “preventable medical problems”. Seven more died in police custody, while 15 lost their lives during “highly risky” attempts to enter the country. Seven were killed in racist street attacks, four after deportation to a country where they feared for their safety, two as a result of destitution, and four because they had been forced into dangerous work in the black economy.
One 18-year-old Sudanese man hanged himself in prison after being wrongly told he was to be deported. A Ghanaian woman died after being deported while undergoing treatment for terminal cancer. You can read more detailed case studies here.
In life, asylum seekers are often invisible- – forbidden from working yet sometimes cut off from state support. If their claims are rejected, they can drop out of the system entirely and fall into utter destitution, or be vulnerable to exploitation by organised crime. So, too, in death: the IRR says that the figure of 77 is likely to be an under-estimate due to the difficulty of obtaining figures, particularly for those who work illegally in the so-called “shadow economy”, or those who die coming into the UK. Some of the deaths could not be independently verified.
The popular characterisation of asylum seekers as “bogus” has gained currency in the last decade, and politicians have played into the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the mass media. This was evident in the televised leader’s debates, when David Cameron repeatedly conflated economic migrants and asylum seekers.
This is the central point: seeking asylum is a basic human right, enshrined in international law. It is wholly distinct from economic migration, whereby people relocate to seek employment. For all the talk of Britain being a “soft touch”, claims are frequently wrongly rejected the first time round because of an overly stringent interpretation of the Refugee Convention. A huge proportion of these cases are won on appeal, but for these vulnerable people – often isolated and suffering from post-traumatic stress – the strain can be too much, as the suicide figures in this report show. The introduction of fast-tracked asylum claims and deportations will only compound the existing failure to give people a fair hearing.
Rising unemployment and a shortage of housing have fostered anti-immigrant feeling. But to make asylum seekers — some of the world’s most vulnerable people — suffer more to appease this rising tide of racism is brutal and unjustified.