Ninety-five people have died in asylum accommodation since April 2016, almost double the figure recently admitted by the government, raising suspicions the Home Office has deliberately downplayed the death toll.
And the data reveals that in the past two years there has been a particularly sharp increase in the number of deaths of those housed under asylum support provisions, such as in hotels.
Deaths leapt from four in 2019 to 36 in 2020 – a ninefold increase – with a further 33 people in the first eight months of 2021, bringing total deaths since the start of 2020 to 69 people, according to freedom of information (FoI) requests by the investigative journalism organisation, Liberty Investigates.
Dr Sabir Zazai, chief executive of the Scottish Refugee Council, called the figures “devastating” and urged an independent inquiry to establish why so many people in the state’s care were dying.
As recently as three months ago the Home Office said 51 people had died in its asylum accommodation, following FoI requests made by the Scottish Refugee Council (SRC). The new, much higher number has shocked experts and raised questions over the significant discrepancy in death tolls.
The SRC and Liberty Investigates asked about deaths of people housed under four sections of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. The only difference was that Liberty Investigates asked for deaths up to August, two months more. This only explains 11 of the extra deaths, leaving 33 unaccounted for.
Pressed for an explanation, the Home Office said the discrepancy came from its interpretation of an extra phrase included in one of the requests from the Scottish Refugee Council – “whilst staying in asylum support accommodation”.
A Home Office spokesperson appeared to suggest it took this clause to mean deaths only taking place inside asylum accommodation, not if they were in hospital, for instance.
Separate documents seen by the Observer and Liberty Investigates reveal that a 77-year-old Salvadorian, who died in a hospital in Wakefield 10 days after falling ill at his asylum hotel on 5 May 2020, did not appear in the first FoI data but did appear in the response months later.
Stuart McDonald, SNP home affairs spokesperson, described the new figures as “appalling” and demanded reassurances that the discrepancy was not a deliberate Home Office decision to lower the number of deaths. He said: “A reasonable person reading [the original] request would not interpret it in that way. We need reassurance from the Home Office that this is because somebody interpreted the [first] FoI wrong and not because they were deliberately taking a restrictive view on it,” he said.