Following the deaths of three asylum seekers in Glasgow, a group of local MPs have called for a Fatal Accident Inquiry into the circumstances. While the deaths themselves are not directly connected, those seeking the inquiry consider that they may be linked by systematic failings in the asylum system.
In considering the circumstances of a death or deaths, a Fatal Accident Inquiry also looks at what can be done to prevent other deaths in similar circumstances. Unlike a civil court action, it is not an adversarial process focussed on compensation or blame. Instead, it is a fact finding exercise with the potential to identify what can be done to make situations safer for a particular group or the public more generally.
In certain cases, such as when a death occurs as a result of a workplace accident, the inquiry is mandatory. In others, such as with these recent deaths, an inquiry would be discretionary. This means that the Lord Advocate determines whether the inquiry should take place. The factors to be considered are whether the death was sudden, suspicious, or unexplained, or occurred in circumstances which give rise to public concern, and whether it is in the public interest for the inquiry to go ahead.
Asylum seekers are a particularly vulnerable group in society. Under national laws, and contrary to what is often portrayed by the media, an asylum seeker is not entitled to the same benefits, support, or right to work as those who are settled in the UK. It is only after the government grant their application for asylum that a refugee’s status is officially recognised and that they are able to work and access the full support available to UK citizens. Without the right to work, and with access only to a limited weekly allowance and often temporary and substandard accommodation, asylum seekers are left exposed to an even greater risk of poverty and poor mental and physical health.
Leaving politics aside, the UK is obliged under international law to give proper consideration to applications for asylum from those who claim to be fleeing persecution. In fulfilling this obligation the Government has undertaken to provide support and accommodation to those whose applications are awaiting determination. If there is a possibility that either the actions of local authorities, or the system at a higher level, are failing to do so, then this needs to be highlighted and addressed. A system intended to protect those fleeing persecution is not working if it puts them at risk of a different and avoidable harm.
Before these recent calls for a Fatal Accident Inquiry, concerns had already been raised about the standard of accommodation being made available for asylum seekers in Glasgow, with hotels being used as temporary accommodation as the response to additional difficulties caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Over the past 6 months, almost everyone has faced some kind of struggle, whether that be social, financial, emotional, or health related. The most vulnerable are likely to be hardest hit. It is just as important as ever, if not more so, to identify whether failings in the system contributed to the deaths of these three asylum seekers and what steps can be taken to prevent others ending up in similar situations.
It is in the public interest to ensure at risk groups are protected. The circumstances under which inquiries are mandatory make it clear that Fatal Accident Inquiries are a safeguard for those who may be put in vulnerable positions without a way to hold those in positions of power to account. For instance, an employer knows that a death in the workplace will be investigated and any health and safety failings identified. Likewise, if a death in custody has been caused by improper practices then there is a mechanism in place to ensure this does not go unchecked.
Fatal Accident Inquiries are an important tool and one which could be used here to ensure that the asylum system is not causing additional harm to those it should support. At a time when it would be easy to focus on other issues, the call for an inquiry is a much needed reminder that the Government have a duty to all members of society.
Blog by Amy Haughton, Solicitor