Content warning: This article contains mention of sexual assault, miscarriage and infant death.
Maria Wetu was heavily pregnant when she arrived at a residence for asylum seekers in London, in spring 2020. It had been a harrowing journey.
Fleeing an abusive relationship in Angola, the 24-year-old had arrived in the UK just weeks earlier – only, she alleges, to be sexually abused by a man. She claims she escaped with the help of hospital staff who called the police, then she filed an asylum claim and was placed in state-supported housing.
On 13 April, soon after her arrival at the residence managed by Clearsprings Ready Homes, Wetu began suffering abdominal pains and asked reception staff to call an ambulance. Under their contract with the Home Office, providers of asylum accommodation are required to help residents access medical care in urgent situations. They refused to make the call, she claims.
By then, Wetu was in so much pain she could barely talk. Reception staff agreed to dial 999 but insisted Wetu speak to the call handlers herself, she recalls. Her English is limited, and she couldn’t understand their questions. She began to bleed heavily, prompting reception staff to finally call for an ambulance on her behalf.
When she reached the hospital, she learned her baby daughter, her firstborn – delivered at 34 weeks – had died. “Nothing will ever replace the pain of not holding that child in my arms,” she says. “Losing a child is like a tattoo. It never leaves you.”
Wetu is speaking under her own name for the first time after disclosures obtained by gal-dem and Liberty Investigates reveal that between October 2017 and May 2022, eight babies born live to asylum seekers living in Home Office accommodation died before reaching their first birthday.
Seven of the deaths took place since May 2020. Around this time, the asylum seeker accommodation system was coming under strain from a backlog in asylum decisions. The Home Office also temporarily stopped withdrawing support from those whose claims were decided so that they wouldn’t be left homeless during the pandemic. The government started using hotels and military barracks as emergency housing, yet reports emerged that some of these were akin to ‘detention centres’ and sometimes unsafe.
A further disclosure released using the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) revealed a further two deaths of asylum seekers’ babies in August 2022, but their exact ages weren’t clear.
The numbers also reveal only part of the picture of infant tragedies among asylum seekers. Wetu’s stillborn daughter, for example, is missing from the disclosure because the Home Office doesn’t collect figures about the miscarriages or stillbirths of asylum seekers living in its accommodation.
The revelations are “hugely concerning” and “should set alarm bells ringing”, says Kirsty Kitchen, head of policy at the charity Birth Companions.
“It is shocking that asylum seekers and their babies appear to be being so neglected in a country which should be offering them a place of safety and sanctuary,” says Alison Thewliss, MP for Glasgow Central and the chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Immigration Detention.
“Between October 2017 and May 2022, eight babies born live to asylum seekers living in Home Office accommodation died before reaching their first birthday”
The new data comes amid campaigners’ fears that apparent failures in the support of pregnant asylum seekers – especially since the start of the pandemic in early 2020 – may pose potential risks to their health, and that lives may be at risk in the accommodation run by private providers.
Providers of asylum housing have historically been criticised by campaigners for poor standards including cleanliness and damp issues. New asylum accommodation contracts awarded by the Home Office in 2019 were intended to set standards on safety and conditions. What’s more, Home Office policy acknowledges that asylum seekers are at higher risk of pregnancy complications than others because they may face complex social factors and pre-arrival medical issues. Providers of asylum accommodation are responsible for helping pregnant asylum seekers access healthcare, for example registering with a GP. In practice, though, some asylum seekers have found themselves unsupported.
Mariam (not her real name) arrived in the UK in June 2020 after crossing the Channel by small boat. She was eight months pregnant with her first child. The Home Office placed her initially in a hotel in north London, operated under contract by private firm Clearsprings Ready Homes. Staff didn’t tell her she could access a doctor, she claims.
About three weeks later, she went into labour and called an ambulance. Her baby was in foetal distress and medics rushed her for an emergency caesarean but – she alleges – didn’t obtain permission, and failed to find an Amharic interpreter. “I was so scared – I thought I was dying,” she says.
In recognition of their additional needs, pregnant asylum seekers are eligible for a one-off payment of £300 and an extra £3 a week in addition to their £40.85 weekly allowance from the Home Office. Once they give birth, the extra £3 a week stops, but they receive an extra £45.85 a week for the baby. After two days, Mariam was discharged and taken back to her hotel, where she says it took a month to receive the additional money she was entitled to. She relied on charities to supply baby clothes and a pushchair.
Though the government’s target for moving any asylum seeker from hotel accommodation to longer-term housing is 35 days, Mariam and her new daughter spent three months in a small hotel room, where she claims she asked staff for a mini-fridge to stop food going off, but this was denied. “[The staff] make you feel bad, the way they treat you is like they’re doing you a favour and you should accept whatever they give you,” she says.
“Conditions in initial accommodation hotels are undignified, with inedible food regularly being served, staff treating people aggressively and disrespectfully, and very little information given to people about how long they will stay,” says Heike Langbein, advice manager for the charity Migrants Organise.
In the case of pregnant asylum seekers and those who’ve recently given birth, it amounts to more than an unpleasant experience, she says. “The asylum system is not safe for babies and pregnant people. After fleeing war, conflict or persecution people need effective healthcare, safe housing, a sense of community and the right to rebuild their lives but people are being stripped of this.”
“Nothing will ever replace the pain of not holding that child in my arms”Maria Wetu
Alvina Chibhamu, from Zimbabwe, believes similar issues contributed to her giving birth two months prematurely. Arriving pregnant, homeless and alone in September 2019, she approached Migrant Help, an organisation contracted by the Home Office to advise asylum seekers applying for housing and financial support. The charity’s Glasgow office turned her away because they hadn’t received the right paperwork, she claims, so she went to social services. They found her a room in a hotel.
Realising she hadn’t felt her baby move all day, Chibhamu went to hospital where she was told to attend daily appointments to monitor her diabetes and blood pressure. Shuttled between hotels every few days by social services, she was forced to choose between spending her weekly allowance on food or travel, because nobody told her she could get her medical travel reimbursed, she says. “On some days I didn’t go because I couldn’t afford to get to the hospital,” she says.
It took a month for the Home Office to provide her temporary housing in a small flat where people rang the bell through the night to access the building, she thinks to buy drugs. Within a week of moving in, Chibhamu gave birth at just 32 weeks. “I think it was because of all of the stress,” she says.
The Scottish government provides everyone who’s given birth with a care package of supplies, but Chibhamu didn’t receive anything before the birth because she’d had no appropriate address. When hospital staff asked her for clothes for the baby she gave birth to, she cried; she had nothing.
After eight weeks in hospital, Chibhamu returned to the flat, which she says was too small for her and her newborn, suffering postnatal depression. Home Office policy notes pregnant asylum seekers should be relocated to longer-term accommodation “as soon as possible” but it was not until five months later, having – she claims – submitted three police reports about her building, and sent Migrant Help letters from her health visitor and podiatrist, that she was finally moved. Following her experiences, Chibhamu recently completed her own research project looking into the difficulties faced by pregnant asylum seekers.
“The asylum system is not safe for babies and pregnant people”Heike Langbein
“Asylum seekers often don’t have access to a safe, suitable and secure place to live,” says Maree Aldam, CEO of the charity Amma Birth Companions. “We see a range of systemic inequalities that can contribute to people – particularly those who don’t speak English – being unable to understand the support that is available, the information they’re being given, or the rights and choices they have.
“We also know that asylum seekers don’t have enough to live on, so we see mothers being unable to attend antenatal appointments and unable to get the nutrition that they need when pregnant and breastfeeding,” she adds.
“The poor treatment and isolation people endure within this process, on top of the trauma they have already experienced, has an impact on stress and anxiety. We know this can contribute to poor birth outcomes and infant mortality.”
Of the eight infant deaths recorded in Home Office disclosures between October 2017 and May 2022, gal-dem and Liberty Investigates succeeded in tracing two of their mothers. One of the babies died from a heart condition, while the other was born prematurely. His mother made the unavoidable decision to take him off life support after three days. Both women said they had sufficient access to healthcare and the deaths could not be prevented, though neither was supported by the Home Office in arranging their babies’ funerals, they claim.
Because there’s little information about the other six deaths, and none about the unknown number of stillbirths, it’s impossible to tell if any of them could have been avoided or were linked to the kinds of problems – such as inadequate access to healthcare, poor accommodation or insufficient resources – faced by women gal-dem and Liberty Investigates spoke to. Campaigners and MPs believe the circumstances should be properly examined.
“Newborn babies must always receive the best possible care and attention, so it is deeply troubling to learn that eight babies aged less than 12 months died in asylum seeker accommodation,” says Stephen Kinnock MP, Labour Shadow Minister for Immigration.
“Clearly a comprehensive investigation is required, so that the cause of death in each case can be clearly established, and appropriate action can be taken if there is evidence of failure to provide adequate support or care.”
Alison Thewliss MP, echoed Kinnock’s demands. “The Home Office must now ensure that these tragic statistics prompt a significant response. The support offered must be urgently improved, and the lackadaisical approach to data recording has to be fixed.”
“The system let me down”Maria Wetu
Meanwhile, Wetu and her 18-month-old son, born after her daughter was stillborn, are still living in Home Office housing – shared with other asylum seekers – which she says isn’t fit for purpose. The stairs to her bedroom – where both she and her son sleep – have no handrail or baby gate, forcing her to keep the boy shut in the room. Wetu and her son sleep on mattresses on the floor.
When she went to hospital in August to deliver a new baby daughter, Wetu believed the Home Office would move her somewhere more suitable, but says she’s been told nothing is available. She spent several days in hospital hoping the situation might change, until staff asked her to leave.
“The system let me down,” says Wetu. “[The Home Office] needs to improve support on all levels, support for women who are pregnant and support for women that are victims of human trafficking.”
Wetu finds it difficult to discuss the day she lost her first daughter but hopes her story will lend weight to calls for an investigation. “I don’t want anyone to go through the same situation that I did,” she says.
A spokesperson for Clearsprings Ready Homes, responsible for accommodating Mariam and Maria Wetu, said they “have been providing safe and secure emergency accommodation for the last 22 years”, including during the pandemic, and that residents’ safety is “paramount”. Safeguarding procedures are robust, while staff receive training and all sites have links to local NHS services, said the spokesperson. They added they will investigate the cases.
A spokesperson for Mears, which has held the asylum accommodation contract for Scotland since September 2019, and was responsible for initially housing Alvina Chibhamu, said the safety of residents is of “utmost importance” and they work closely with partners to ensure “all needs are met, including access to healthcare”.
A spokesperson for Migrant Help said it was “deeply saddened to hear the high number of infant deaths”, adding that they “strive to provide the best information, advice and signposting possible for vulnerable individuals”.
A spokesperson for the Home Office said it does not routinely comment on individual cases, but that it was “misleading to suggest that any death that occurs while someone is in the asylum system is a direct consequence of that system, rather than of natural causes”. They added: “The welfare of asylum seekers is, and always will be, of the utmost importance to us.”
Mirren Gidda and Jessica Purkiss are reporters with Liberty Investigates, the editorially independent investigative journalism unit based within Liberty.
This article was amended on 28 October to state Mariam needed an Amharic interpreter. The original version said Arabic.
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