Last Wednesday, on 5 July 2006, a 35-year-old Ethiopian asylum seeker, Abiy Fessfha Abebe, was found hanged in accommodation in Liverpool, after recently being told his asylum claim had been refused. His death is the 25th such death of an asylum seeker in the last five years.
Other asylum seekers who were housed at the same location are distraught and desperately want to know what caused Abiy to take his own life. They are unhappy that they were not informed of Abiy’s death until twenty-four hours after he was found in his room, and want to ensure both that his family are informed and that he is buried according to Ethiopian tradition.
A few days after his death, over fifty asylum seekers attended a meeting with the local MP, Louise Ellman, who listened to their concerns and promised to look into Abiy’s death.
The asylum seekers housed at accommodation centres in Liverpool have issued a statement in which they say: ‘Please listen to our concerns as we all suffer Abiy’s pain. The tragic death of Abiy from Ethiopia has caused extreme distress and concern to all of us who are residents of the accommodation centre. We are all seeking asylum in this country and were close friends and “family” with Abiy… We desperately need answers to our questions and we desperately need your support…. We are victims of a trial system called NAM (the New Asylum Model).’ They also ask for more time to obtain the ‘necessary legal advice, to collect evidence and prepare our cases adequately. We believe that some Home Office personnel involved directly or indirectly with the asylum process are prejudiced and have a negative preconception about people seeking asylum. We ask for respect and dignity.’ (Download the petition here – Word file, 29kb)
Margaret McAdam of Merseyside Racial Harassment Prevention Unit, who has been assisting Abiy’s friends, told IRR News about arrangements in Liverpool for dealing with claims under the New Asylum Model (NAM). There are, she believes, currently 230-240 asylum seekers in Liverpool whose claims are being processed under NAM. They are housed in three different locations in housing provided by a private company Accommodata. Abiy was housed in old student accommodation in Liverpool. The conditions under which Abiy was housed and receiving support (of £35 per week) meant that he had to ‘report’ on a daily basis to Reliance House, some miles away. Other asylum seekers housed at the same site also face similar reporting conditions. They are allowed to come and go as they please from their accommodation but visitors are monitored and their visiting times are restricted. Security guards man all the sites.
IRR News also spoke to the Home Office which said it did not comment on individual cases and that the case was a matter for the police. Merseyside police told IRR News that the death was not being treated as suspicious and that it was now a matter for the coroner. A date for the inquest has yet to be set. Margaret McAdam also told IRR News that deep concern has been expressed as to why Abiy died. ‘There is a lack of objective information which is in turn used to decide asylum cases in the Home Office. We are very worried about the impact that Home Office policy is having on all who are claiming asylum. At the meeting with Louise Ellman MP, one the asylum seekers said ” …the incident for which we are here today is not in isolation with the programmes that asylum seekers are facing. The Home Office is not fair and that is what has led to some people undergoing serious mental stress …to taking their lives”‘.
‘New Asylum Model’
Abiy’s asylum claim was being dealt with in Liverpool under NAM and had been classified as a ‘late and opportunistic’ one.
NAM forms part of the government’s five-year strategy and is described as a ‘faster, tightly managed process’ for all new asylum claimants – detained and non-detained and is ‘designed to manage claimants through a process that is tailored to the individual characteristics of their claim’.
Fast-track procedures had previously only been used for detainees in removal centres such as Harmondsworth (from April 2003) and Yarl’s Wood (from May 2005). However, the same procedures for deciding asylum claims are now being used in a similar fashion in the community. Fast tracking for non-detained people started in June 2005. Under NAM, asylum seekers are appointed ‘a single case owner’ who is ‘is responsible for an asylum seeker throughout the process – from application to the granting of status or removal’. In Liverpool, decisions on asylum claims can be expected within eleven days and independent legal advice is ‘facilitated’ by the Immigration and Nationality Department (IND) through a rota system using two local immigration law firms.
In March 2006, the Refugee Council published a briefing which stated that NAM procedures which had been implemented did ‘not allow enough time for people to seek legal advice and adequately prepare their asylum claim’. The Refugee Council also expressed concerns about the ability of the IND ‘to make correct decisions on asylum claims within such tight time scales’. It also raised concerns about the fact that the needs of asylum seekers might be overlooked in the rush to process claims quickly. Specific concerns were also raised about the operation of NAM in Liverpool where health care provision and access to independent advice is limited. The way claims were classified limited the ability of asylum seekers to challenge these decisions and those on reporting conditions and accommodation.