[ 24. Jun 2006 ]

UK: A day in the death of an asylum seeker

IRR News reports on the recent inquest into the death of an Ethiopian asylum seeker found hanged in September 2004, just hours after being taken to hospital by friends because he had suicidal feelings.


Almost once a month in the UK, an asylum seeker, wracked with anxiety about the possibility of being returned and worn away by the racist indifference of the 'caring agencies', takes his life. Such deaths hardly get reported, the circumstances are rarely highlighted. IRR News sat in on a typical inquest.

On 25 May 2006, an inquest at Newcastle-upon-Tyne, heard the circumstances surrounding the death of 24-year-old Seife Habte Yimene. The proceedings took place in the coroner's court, just a few miles from where Seife was found hanged in the garden of a house opposite Newcastle general hospital in the early hours of a Sunday morning, and lasted just a few hours. Sadly, the number of witnesses well outnumbered the four concerned individuals who attended to hear what happened to Seife in the last days of his short life.

The coroner, David Mitford, began by reading a letter from Seife's sister who was unable to attend the inquest; she asked that 'You would do everything that justice may be rendered'.

The first witness was Home Office pathologist, Dr Cooper, who told the inquest that the cause of death was pressure on the neck caused by hanging - plastic packing tape was used which left a ligature mark around Seife's neck. There was no evidence Seife had been manhandled or of any violence by a third party.

Fear and extreme panic

The inquest then heard from two asylum seekers who knew Seife, albeit not very well, from their accounts. The two men had taken Seife under their wing after seeing him distressed in the centre of Newcastle and sought medical help, unsuccessfully, as Seife appeared to be more and more distressed.

Mr T., an Eritrean asylum seeker, knew Seife from the church. He told the inquest that he had met Seife in Newcastle city centre on the day before his death. Seife believed he was being followed, so he had taken him back to his house where Seife had stayed for about half-an-hour. Seife was described as 'panicked', 'biting his lips' at the bus stop. He had then seen Seife the next day when his friend D.S. brought him back to their house. Seife was again 'nervous', he didn't want to go out and kept running up and down the stairs. He told the coroner 'we are worried about him, we kept him in the house. We were scared. He said he wanted to kill himself. All of the time, calling the name of God.'

D.S., an Eritrean asylum seeker, told the inquest that he had met Seife on Saturday in Newcastle city centre, saying 'He told us someone was following him, he didn't make sense... someone was following him to kill him. He was frightened. There was nobody around and he was on his own.' At D.S.'s house, Seife refused food and later started saying "I'm going to commit suicide. I'm going to kill myself." Jumping from one room to another, saying he was being followed, carried on till midnight. The friends were so concerned that they called for help from a local community leader, who was busy and did not come. When questioned by the coroner as to why they had not called the police, he replied, 'It was not important to call the police, he needed medical help...Things got worse. He jumped out of a window [ground floor] and ran to a neighbour's house...We called an ambulance by phone. He didn't want to go to the hospital, the ambulance people persuaded him to go.' After speaking with the hospital doctor, his friends left the hospital, asking Seife to go with them, but he refused. They waited outside for a short time, 'just in case' but he never came out.

At the hospital, a senior house officer told the inquest, her first impressions of Seife was that he was an 'agitated young man'. It had been a busy night in A&E. Seife had come in around 12.30am and was initially assessed by triage and then placed in the psychiatric room (a quiet room) with his friends. The doctor saw Seife on four occasions, 'two formal and two informal'. She said the 'only knowledge that I had was that he was an agitated person. [He] didn't want to discuss anything about why he was here... [He] shook his head and indicated [that he] didn't want to discuss it.' He also 'looked distressed and paced the room'. At some point Seife did tell the doctor that he was staying at the YWCA and she said that she passed the YWCA phone number to Seife's two friends whom she said she took aside to ask about Seife's behaviour. She claimed that they told her he had 'been agitated all day but did not know why'. When questioned, the doctor declared that neither Seife nor his friends had 'indicated' suicide or Seife's thoughts about being followed.

She concluded that Seife was an 'agitated and distressed young man', with no obvious psychiatric problems. She did not refer Seife to a psychiatrist but told him 'he could come back at any point when ready to talk'. When questioned by the coroner about why she did not refer Seife to a psychiatrist she told the court that referrals to the psychiatric team were made 'if [there is] an obvious psychiatric problem, I didn't have that information... in my mind I had given him appropriate advice.' She said she was later informed that he had left the department and that the police had been called to take him home.

Asked to leave

It is not entirely clear as to why police were called. Was Seife being escorted home or was he being removed from hospital premises? A staff nurse gave a written statement in which she indicated that the police were called because, while on the phone to the hostel she was cut off and wanted to ensure 'safe discharge' and therefore called the police to take Seife home. But a police officer told the inquest that he had been called at around 3.10am to go to the hospital with a colleague on the busy Saturday night to deal with 'a male refusing to leave'. On arrival, the 'staff nurse pointed out the gentleman who wouldn't leave' and the two policemen escorted Seife, described as 'not at all difficult' and 'very compliant', from the premises. When questioned about his role, one PC told the inquest 'We don't take people home. We're not insured to take them home.' He also spoke of an 'extreme language barrier' (a surprising observation given that Seife spoke English with his friends). The same officers saw Seife again walking towards the city centre about half a mile from the hospital. They drove past the lone walker at around 3.45am.

Found dead

It was an Asian taxi driver, later that morning, who saw 'something hanging from the tree'. Other people, passing in their cars had also seen Seife hanging from the tree. He parked his car and looked again, surprised at what he was seeing, a Black skinned person 'just hanging there... suspended in the tree'. He phoned an ambulance and the police, who arrived within a couple of minutes.

One of the first officers at the scene reported seeing 'a young coloured man'. He had put his hand under the clothing to feel for a heartbeat, to find Seife 'was still warm and hadn't been there very long'. He helped to cut Seife down as other officers began resuscitation. An ambulance arrived and paramedics had used resuscitation equipment for a further ten minutes with no response.

Evidence was also given by a PC (for the Professional Standards Department) as to how the two officers treated Seife at the hospital. The same officer also made enquiries about Seife's legal status and told the coroner that Seife was on bail and due to speak to the Immigration and Nationality Department in October 2004, a few weeks after he died.

Coroner's conclusions

In conclusion, the coroner commented on a 'case that has given me significant concern... [There is] evidence of a man behaving in a bizarre fashion. [He had a] troubled frame of mind'. Of the hospital doctor he said, 'I think she did the best she could in circumstances'. But went on, 'There does seem to me a peculiarity of what happened afterwards. Therefore it doesn't surprise me that [the] message changed from 'need to get man home' to 'get rid of'. From that point onwards we don't know what he did. It is more likely than not that he took his own life and he was found hanging in circumstances whose precise details may never be known... I am not sure [he] was able to make rational decisions... and am reluctant to draw a conclusion about what he was doing, I record an open verdict. There was insufficient evidence to be sure that what he was doing was a deliberate act'.

Unanswered questions

Indeed some questions still remain unanswered. Did Seife's fellow asylum seekers pass on to the hospital doctor the fact that Seife had told them that he was suicidal and thought that he was being followed. The coroner failed to ask this specific question and the doctor denied having such knowledge. The staff nurse was also not called to the inquest to explain how she came to misunderstand the role of the police.

More disturbingly, the coroner called on a policeman to give information on Seife's immigration status, but failed to call on a local refugee organisation or the assigned asylum caseworker who had not only been assisting with his asylum claim but also providing housing and other support. IRR news has found that the caseworker did indeed know more details about Seife's situation than did the police. And the details were crucial to understanding his distress and desperation.

After the verdict, Seife's caseworker told IRR News: 'The coroner drew the only conclusion he could possibly have drawn under the circumstances. Although I was aware of information which could, and probably should, have been heard at the inquest it would not have altered the verdict. It might, however, have helped to explain why Seife found himself in such a desperate state; which is surely just as important morally as the coroner's requirement for a burden of proof is legally. Asylum seekers (as you know) inhabit a parallel, but second-class world on the margins of society. They rely on an entirely separate system of benefits, housing and increasingly even health services to survive. If, as seems to have been the been the case with the police and coroner's court, you do not understand this, then you will never know which questions to ask and to whom.'

This article by Harmit Athwal was published first on 21 June 2006 at [urlext][/ulrext] with following note:

"The IRR is currently researching the suicides of asylum seekers and undocumented workers in the UK, if you have any information please email: mit (at) The Institute of Race Relations will soon be publishing Death Trap: the human cost of the war on asylum, which documents the deaths of asylum seekers and migrants in the UK. The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors."