Failing the vulnerable: the death of ten asylum seekers and other foreign nationals in UK detention

Failing the vulnerable: the death of ten asylum seekers and other foreign nationals in UK detention

Press Release

Written by: Harmit Athwal

The self-inflicted death of a Ukrainian asylum seeker at Harmondsworth removal centre on 19 July would have gone unnoticed if it had not been for the subsequent eruption of large-scale violence forcing the closure of the centre and the dispersal of detainees to other detention centres and prisons.

One of those dispersed, a 23-year-old Vietnamese man, was found hanged in Dungavel removal centre in Lanarkshire, four days later. The Institute of Race Relations (IRR) today publishes details of ten self-inflicted deaths of asylum seekers and other foreign nationals at UK prisons and detention centres over the last four years.

The IRR suggests there are two causes to these deaths. On the one hand, many asylum seekers are highly fearful of being returned to countries where they know they will not be safe from persecution. On the other hand, there appears to be a lack of care in detention centres and prisons towards foreign nationals (especially those who are Black). Those being held are particularly vulnerable, often suffering from stress and mental health problems induced by their desperate situation.

There are also growing reports of violent treatment by custody officers at detention centres. In one case, which is currently being investigated, this may also have resulted in a death at Haslar immigration removal centre.

As well as the deaths listed below, the Institute of Race Relations has also recorded over the last four years sixteen other deaths of foreigners, not being held in custody, who came to the UK to seek asylum and took their own lives shortly after being told that their asylum application had been rejected.

Harmit Athwal, Institute of Race Relations researcher on immigration detention, said: ‘In the week that the government celebrates the passing of its new Asylum and Immigration Act, which is designed to make it easier than ever to deport asylum seekers, the death of two detainees sends a clear signal that the current system of detention is reckless with people’s lives. Deaths in the custody of detention centres, like those in prisons, are often ignored and forgotten, except by the families of those affected. Unless this culture of neglect is tackled, there are likely to be more deaths and more disturbances.’

Self inflicted deaths of asylum seekers/foreign nationals in detention/prison, 2000-2004
  • Robertas Grabys, 24/01/00, Lithuanian asylum seeker found hanged in Harmondsworth detention centre on the day he was due to be deported. A report into his death criticised the private company that was in charge of Harmondsworth at the time.
  • Beverley Fowler, 32, 2/10/02, found hanged two days before the end of her sentence, in Durham prison. She was a mother of three from Jamaica who was due to be deported back there after serving a sentence for drug smuggling. In September 2003, an inquest recorded an open verdict. The inquest was told she feared for her safety back in Kingston; the man who forced her into drug smuggling had murdered her partner.
  • Mikhail Bognarchuk, 42, 31/1/03, Ukrainian asylum seeker found hanged at Haslar removal centre.
  • Adel Muftah El-Hage, 29,16/3/03, found electrocuted at Woodhill (category A) prison. Adel, a Libyan, was on remand after being arrested and charged in February 2003 with the murder of his wife, Salma Abusedra. At pre-trial hearings he had begged the judge to send him to Saudi Arabia so that he could face the death penalty, but had been refused.
  • Rajwinder Singh Mutti, 29/3/03, found hanged in Blakenhurst (private) prison where he was on remand for a charge of GBH. Rajwinder had claimed asylum in the UK a few years earlier and was granted indefinite leave to remain.
  • Tema Kombe, 32, 4/9/03, Ugandan asylum seeker found hanged in toilet in the psychiatric ward at Heatherwood hospital, Ascot, after being detained under the Mental Health Act.
  • Mohammed bin Duhri, 20, 20/10/03, Palestinian asylum seeker found hanged at Belmarsh prison. Three officers suspended after filing reports saying, after the death, that he was still alive.
  • Liang He, 23, 10/11/03, found hanged at Bedford prison.
  • Ukrainian man (name not known), 31, 19/7/04, found hanged in Harmondsworth detention centre. His death sparked a night of disturbances at the centre and led to all of the detainees being transferred to prisons and other detention centres.
  • Vietnamese man (name not known), 23, 23/7/04, found hanged in Dungavel removal centre in Scotland just days after being transferred from Harmondsworth removal centre.

Related links


The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

3 thoughts on “Failing the vulnerable: the death of ten asylum seekers and other foreign nationals in UK detention

  1. excellent reports on post-Harmondsworth protest. For future, remember the major protests by detainees at Campsfield in June 1994 – the day after a national demo outside – when Group 4/Home Office broke a deal with detainees and deported an Algerian leading protester, Ali Tamarat, without informing lawyers beforehand (they had agreed to cease this kind of operation). This followed a hunger strike by 175 detainees and a roof top protest in March. Then on August 20 1997 there was another mass protest and major damage done, again following an early morning removal and detainees’ fear that the person being removed was being strangled; this led on to the trial of 9 detainees, all of whom were acquitted of all charges including arson, in June 1998. Bill

  2. Here’s one you missed. Nariman Tahamasbi, a 28 year-old Iranian died on 25th Feb 02 in Lewes prison. He had been arrested trying to leave the country and convicted of false instrument. Well over 2 years later there has still been no inquest

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