[ 02. Dec 2007 ]

What to do in the event of an asylum-seeker death


A guide on what to do in the event of the death of an asylum seeker has been published by the Institute of Race Relations.


This 13-page briefing paper, Asylum deaths; what to do next (pdf file, 232kb), by Harmit Athwal, contains information as to where in the system asylum seekers are most at risk (to self-harm), why they might be moved to take their lives and how those working with or befriending asylum seekers can help to bring the circumstances surrounding the death to light.

In the last five years alone, the IRR has documented forty-one suicides (thirteen in removal centres or prison) and twenty-eight in the community - where no official tally is being kept. After such deaths, very often the family of the deceased is overseas and the UK authorities are unable to contact them. In such cases, there is rarely anyone to speak for the deceased person and ensure that the inquest adequately examines the reasons for his/her death.

The IRR has been trying to collate the incidence of asylum seeker deaths in the last few years, has been regularly consulted by individuals and groups working in areas where someone has taken his/her life. Often these are areas to which asylum seekers have been dispersed and where the individual has no friends or family to speak up for them. It became apparent that there was a need to provide guidance for those working with asylum seekers on how the inquest system works, on repatriation and burial, on the possibility of campaigning and further contacts.

The guide was launched at a workshop held at the IRR on 23 November where those from or working with asylum seekers were given the opportunity to learn from the experiences of other groups campaigning around similar issues over the past twenty years. It was the first time that people working on asylum health matters, INQUEST (which supports families of those who have died in custody) and United Friends and Families (a campaigning group on deaths in custody) met to compare notes and talk to 'newly arrived' groups about the problems involved. As an IRR spokesman told the workshop: 'Racism does not always stay the same, different groups are affected at different times. It might have been Black young men who were most at risk of death by being restrained, now it is also asylum seekers who are at risk. Categories of people may change, but the racial stereotyping is always there - of these groups being violent and dangerous. And everyone is up against the silence of the system which closes ranks after a death. The organisation INQUEST was formed out of the struggle of the partner of teacher Blair Peach (killed by police in an anti-racist demonstration in Southall in 1979) to find out the truth of how he died. Today, for asylum seekers, who are already forced into a kind of nether world, whose voices are rarely heard, the struggle for truth is still as pressing.'

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