The National: A TOTAL of 16 people seeking asylum in the UK died in the six months directly preceding lockdown, leading to calls for the “institutionally racist” Home Office to be scrapped to save lives.

Politicians and refugee organisations said the UK-wide figures, which cover the period from September 19 to March 20 and were released under Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation, were “deeply troubling”.

They claimed the previously unpublished stats suggest that the high profile death of three asylum seekers in Glasgow this year were not isolated tragedies.

Those deaths include that of Mercy Baguma from Uganda, whose body was found with her toddler at her side in August. It is understood that she was due to be transferred to a flat provided on behalf of the Home Office by Mears Group that week.

Syrian Adnan Olbeh, 30, was found dead in his room a McLays Guest House where he was accommodated by Mears as part of its response to Covid-19 in early May.

Those working with refugees had been warning for months prior to his death that the decision to move vulnerable people into “institutionalised” accommodation in the midst of the pandemic could end in disaster.

Less than eight weeks later, Badreddin Abadlla Adam from Sudan was shot dead by police after his attack at the Park Inn Hotel in Glasgow’s George Street on 26 June, which left six people injured. He was reportedly struggling with his mental health.

READ MORE: Scottish Guardianship Service notes increase in lone children seeking asylum

Earlier this month all seven Glasgow MPs wrote to the Lord Advocate, calling for a public inquiry into the deaths to address “escalating public concerns” and prevent further tragedies.

Chris Stephens, SNP MP for Glasgow South West, said the new UK-wide figures underlined the urgent need for an investigation. It is not known how the 16 people died or where in the UK they were living, although The Ferret is aware that at least one of the deaths during the period was in Glasgow.

Campaigners have demanded greater transparency about the circumstances in which people in the asylum system died. They also called for the Home Office to put in place policies to ensure that deaths in its care were investigated thoroughly and promptly with support offered to loved ones making funeral and repatriation arrangements.

Stuart MacDonald MP, the SNP’s asylum spokesperson, said:“Sixteen deaths in the asylum system in only six months is shocking and deeply troubling.

“That we don’t know what happened to them speaks to an abysmal lack of transparency. It should not take FOIs to secure this information – openness and accountability are vital if we are to keep vulnerable people as safe as possible.”

Scottish Greens co-leader and Glasgow MSP Patrick Harvie claimed the UK’s “racist immigration system is killing people”. He again raised concerns about the decision of Mears Group to put more than 400 people in hotels across the city just before lockdown restrictions were introduced back in March.

Many were moved out of flats. All cash support was stopped and meals provided in communal dining rooms. Last week an outbreak of Covid-19 was reported at McLays Guest house and 44 asylum seekers were initially told to self-isolate in their rooms. On Saturday all but 11 were told this was no longer necessary.

Harvie said: “These 16 people lost their lives before Covid restrictions, but we know that since then hundreds were moved into inadequate temporary accommodation in Glasgow and elsewhere, with some locked down because of Covid outbreaks.

“There is a serious and urgent risk that this number could be far higher in current circumstances.

“What other dark secrets is it hiding? The department is institutionally racist and should be scrapped and replaced with something that respects dignity and human rights. Such a move would save lives.”

Last week it emerged that Home Secretary Priti Patel and officials had proposed a range of “brainstormed” draconian policies, which critics have claimed take the hostile immigration environment to another level.

Proposals leaked included sending asylum seekers to have their claims “processed” on the remote Ascension Island, a UK territory more than 4000 miles away. Others included housing them on disused oil platforms and retired ferries, which Nicola Sturgeon said treated people seeking asylum as “cattle in a holding pen”.

Harvie claimed these were the type of far right policies associated with fascist parties and said it underlined that the department could not be trusted.

Chris Stephens, whose office previously assisted Baguma with her asylum claim, said there was a pressing need to know more about why people had died while in the care of the Home Office.

“Some might be due to underlying health conditions but others may have taken their own lives,” he added.

“These people have gone through things that we just can’t possibly imagine.”

READ MORE: There is no refugee crisis, but Priti Patel and co seem determined to have one

Human rights lawyer Aamer Anwar added: “If the Home Office was running a civilized system that was fair and accountable it would have nothing to fear in terms of publishing figures about asylum seekers dying. People have a right to know.”

The destructive impact of the asylum system on people’s mental health is well documented. According to the Mental Health Foundation asylum seekers are five times more likely to have mental health needs than the general population and more than 61% will experience serious mental distress.

Factors that make them more vulnerable include trauma such as torture, detention, or experiences of violence both in their countries of origin – such as Syria, South Sudan, Iran and El Salvador – and on treacherous journeys to the UK, often facilitated by people smugglers.

Fiona Crombie, a psycho-therapist and manager of Freedom for Torture in Scotland, which supports asylum seekers in mental distress, said she feared that figures for the next six months could be higher still. “We are currently sitting on a mental health time bomb,” she told The Ferret. “We’re seeing a significant decline in mental health levels in the course of lockdown.”

NHS services, she claimed, had been “overwhelmed” by the level of need, making it almost impossible for new referrals to be accepted.

Meanwhile those still in hotel accommodation are struggling, with young people in particular finding it hard to cope, she added. Of particular concern are those in McLays Guest House in Glasgow “I have a very high level of concern for people currently, she said.

“We’ve already seen the death of Adnan, a very vulnerable person possibly with PTSD. Now in the same hotel we have people being told to isolate in small rooms. For anyone who has been held captive for example, this could be extremely triggering.

“It’s imperative that people are moved out of hotels and back into appropriate accommodation with one or two people.”

Dylan Fotoohi, co-founder of campaign group Refugees for Justice, said the lack of safety within the system was highlighted by the number of deaths revealed.

He added: “The system is unsafe physically, especially during the pandemic as we saw with the lockdown in McLay’s Guest House. Even outwith covid it is unsafe psychologically – now that is just amplified.

“As an asylum seeker you have to rely on the Home Office and a private [housing] company for the level of support that you need. The system doesn’t afford people the same rights as other people. That’s all that we’ve ever been asking for – equal rights and to live with dignity.”

A spokesperson for Mears Group confirmed that about 200 asylum seekers were currently in three hotels across the city, though many who had been there since March or April of this year have now been moved to flats.

It claims all health and mental health concerns are dealt with by the NHS Asylum Health Bridging Team.

They added: “Mears is committed to ending the use of hotels as soon as possible. The major constraint is the availability of suitable vacant accommodation. We have been working closely with Glasgow City Council, who approve the procurement of all accommodation used for housing asylum seekers.”

A spokesperson for the Home Office said: “We are saddened to hear of the death of any individual in asylum accommodation.

"Our thoughts are with their loved ones and support is available from a number of organisations to help those affected.

“The health and wellbeing of asylum seekers has and always will be the priority, and we will continue to provide support to those that need it."