'Stress cauldron': Living and dying in the UK's opaque asylum system
Found dead at the Crowne Plaza Hotel near Heathrow in London, a young Sudanese asylum seeker made national headlines last month.
Staying in accommodation used by the UK Home Office, Bukhary Afifi Ahmad had been living in the UK for four months after travelling from Calais to Britain, according to media reports.
The 24-year-old died on 18 July.
The New Arab spoke with asylum seekers at the hotel, who were saddened by their friend’s death and frustrated by the lack of information shared about the incident.
“No one knows exactly what happened,” said one resident at Crowne Plaza Heathrow.
The New Arab was told by the resident, speaking on condition of anonymity, as well as by refugee activists that this is not the first death at the UK Home Office accommodation, with allegations ranging from two to four people dying while living there.
While the national headlines were only fleeting, the 24-year-old's death is revealing of what many say is a more permanent and disturbing feature about the UK asylum system: evading the truth.
Not a suspicious death, say police
Police told The New Arab that they were notified about a deceased person at the hotel shortly before 1am on 18 July by the London Ambulance Service.
“The man’s death is not being treated as suspicious,” the statement read. “Steps are being taken to inform his next of kin.”
No more information will be released about the incident until a police inquiry takes place.
A friend of Bukhary said the last conversation they had with him was “normal” - just talking about when they would be granted asylum.
On 18 July, residents at the hotel were worried about Bukhary, so began calling him and knocking on his door, The New Arab was told.
"Seven deaths occurred in accommodation used by the UK Home Office from February to June 2021, with more than 50 deaths in the last five years"
Staff refused to open the door for security reasons when first approached by concerned friends. Supposedly the staff needed to wait at least 24 hours.
After a time, the door was opened. The 24-year-old was found dead on the ground.
It has been reported that the young asylum seeker was discovered face down with a cut to his stomach. Residents could not confirm this with The New Arab.
“No one knows,” they said. But, “will this happen to us?” they added.
Several hotels are used by the UK's Home Office
The Crowne Plaza Hotel near London’s Heathrow airport is used by the UK Home Office to house around 400 asylum seekers.
Opened in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Crowne Plaza Heathrow is one of approximately 150 hotels used by the UK government department, according to a refugee charity who spoke with The New Arab.
People are being treated with “neglect” at Crowne Plaza Heathrow, said one resident. It is like a “small jail,” they added.
The resident accused the reception staff of “ignoring” them and complained the meals were not sufficient in size or for the different nationalities currently living at the hotel. They described a situation in which many are living in limbo, waiting for their claim to be processed - some for over nine months.
A resident at Crowne Plaza Heathrow called the hotel a 'small jail'
A spokesperson from Movement for Justice, a civil and immigrants rights movement that has campaigned alongside asylum seekers at the hotel, called the Crowne Plaza Heathrow a “stress cauldron”.
Bukhary’s death “needs to be exposed” and the hotel needs to be “shut down,” they said.
The New Arab has heard multiple allegations of mistreatment at the Crowne Plaza Heathrow; including women being harassed, items being stolen and residents being unable to access critical services, such as medical care.
The hospitality staff are “untrained,” and do not know how to work with “vulnerable people,” said Maddie Harris, director at Humans For Rights Network.
“Every woman” we’ve spoken to, added Harris, told us they “do not feel safe” there. An “urgent inspection” is needed, she said.
Outsourced by the UK Home Office
The day-to-day running of Crowne Plaza Heathrow is outsourced by the UK Home Office.
There are “layers” of outsourcing, said Harris. Crowne Plaza is run by a hotel company called Stay Belvedere. This company has a contract with a commercial business called Clearsprings Ready Homes which acts on behalf of the UK Home Office.
Stay Belvedere was accused of hiring vulnerable people as workers, such as young immigrants, paying below minimum wage and working them more than the weekly legal limit.
Clearsprings Ready Homes boasts on its website that they have provided accommodation services to the UK Home Office since 2000. The company was tasked with running the Napier barracks in Kent used to house asylum seekers.
Inspectors have criticised conditions at the barracks because of Covid-19 outbreaks and unaddressed fire safety advice, according to recently published reports.
The New Arab contacted Clearsprings for comment, they provided no response. Stay Belvedere has no public website or available contact details.
Migrant Help provides support to asylum seekers living at Crowne Plaza Heathrow. This includes, according to a statement sent to The New Arab, “assist[ing] with accommodation and financial support, reporting issues with asylum accommodation and support payments, and provid[ing] any other advice needed during their asylum journey”.
Maddie Harris, from Humans For Rights Network, said "vast sums of money are being exchanged,” yet there is “no oversight from the Home Office”.
Living without choices
According to news reports, seven deaths occurred in accommodation used by the UK Home Office from February to June 2021, with more than 50 deaths in the last five years.
Some of the deaths are marked as not suspicious, like Bukhary’s, while for others there is no explanation.
The New Arab contacted the UK Home Office, who replied: “We are truly saddened to hear of the death of an individual in asylum accommodation. The health and wellbeing of asylum seekers will always be our priority.
“We are working closely with a range of organisations to ensure immediate support and assistance is provided to people living in the accommodation who have been affected by this tragic death and await further information from the Metropolitan Police as to the findings of their ongoing investigation.”
When asked why they had come to the UK, one of the hotel's residents answered: “freedom".
“[We] need to feel like a human being,” they said. “We have no choices. If we had choices, we would make them.”
Rosie McCabe is a journalist at The New Arab
Follow her on Twitter: @RosieMcCabe3