Pregnant asylum seekers face 'dehumanising' conditions that 'risk babies lives'

Sarah Corker speaks to women who were pregnant as asylum seekers about their difficult experiences

‘Unsafe and dehumanising’. That’s how maternity rights groups and migrant charities have described the conditions faced by pregnant women in asylum seeker accommodation.

A joint investigation by Liberty Investigates and ITV News reveals that eight babies born to asylum seekers in Home Office accommodation died before reaching their first birthday.

Women have described a culture of discrimination, ‘inhospitable’ treatment by accommodation staff and overcrowded, dirty housing.

There are now growing calls for an urgent review of the entire system and the standard of care for pregnant asylum seekers.

In response to our investigation Heike Langbein, Advice Manager at Migrants Organise said ‘”the government’s hostile environment approach is harming the lives of babies, children, their mothers and all people who are here to seek safety.”

Alvina Chibhamu came to the UK from Zimbabwe in 2019, homeless and alone. Heavily pregnant, she was moved from hotel to hotel by social services for weeks, never knowing where she’d end up next.

Alvina Chibhamu claims she missed appointments after facing a choice between affording trips to the hospital or paying for food

She said the rooms were often dirty, windowless and with no sink or toilet. At times, she couldn’t afford the bus fare to get to hospital.

“Most days I missed those (antenatal) appointments. I had to choose between hospital and food. I felt like the worst person ever. I was overwhelmed, I was crying all of the time.”

Nobody told her that she could get her medical travel reimbursed. She believes the stress and poor housing conditions contributed to her premature labour. Thankfully her daughter survived despite being born 2 months early, but it was a traumatic experience.

“Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong,” Ms Chibhamu said.

“When the nurses came to me one day and said “we’re going to need baby clothes now because she’s out of incubator’ I just broke down, I panicked. I said I don’t have any clothes. I don’t have anything at all,” she said.

Official documents seen by ITV News and Liberty Investigates reveal that between October 2017 and May 2022, eight babies born live to asylum seekers provided with Home Office accommodation died. Seven of those deaths happened in the last 2 years. The cause of several of the deaths is unknown and while it’s impossible to tell if they could have been avoided, campaigners say the circumstances must be fully investigated.

Maria Wetu screamed for ‘the love of god, help me' while housing staff refused to call for help. Credit: ITV News

The level of trauma Maria Wetu has endured is hard to comprehend. The 24 year old first said she first escaped an abusive relationship in Angola, and then further abuse in the UK. She thought asylum accommodation was a place of safety. But 34 weeks pregnant and suffering from abdominal pains, she claims housing staff refused to help her to call an ambulance.

“I was really confused. I was screaming for ‘the love of god, help me!’ I went into a state of panic, I was in so much, such an intense pain. I started to scream I think I’m going to lose my baby.”

Under their contract with the Home Office, providers of asylum accommodation are required to help residents access medical care in urgent situations. Unable to speak English, Maria claims she was left bleeding and in agony for ‘what felt like hours’ before staff finally made the call and helped her get to hospital. By then it was too late.

“The doctor told me “Maria I’m so sorry, your baby has died.’ I refused to believe it in that moment because last week the midwife told me everything was okay.”

'Asylum seeking women experience poor outcomes and experience a huge number of barriers to accessing health care', says Kirsty Kitchen, Head of Policy at Birth Companions

Maria’s treatment is not isolated case. Testimony from other women, paints an alarming picture.

One woman described how doctors performed a Caesarian-section without fully telling her what they were doing. “I was so scared – I thought I was dying.”

Others have told charities including Maternity Action and Doctors of the World that they feel ‘as migrant women we aren’t counted as anything.’

Kirsty Kitchen, Head of Policy at Birth Companions, is concerned the true number of deaths could be much higher. The Home Office doesn’t collect figures about the miscarriages or stillbirths of asylum seekers living in its accommodation.

She told ITV News that “we need a full investigation into these deaths and a review of care for pregnant asylum seekers.”

The Doctors of the World clinic tries to help people get the support they need. Credit: ITV News

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists has also added its weight to calls for an urgent review into how the current asylum system can better support pregnant women.

Dr Edward Morris, President of the college, said “we are calling for a minimum standard to be created for asylum accommodation for pregnant women and young children. Staff in initial accommodation should also have basic training, enabling them to support and refer pregnant women in need of emergency care in a safe and timely way.”

Back in Glasgow, Ms Chibhamu is making precious memories with her young family, but the pain of what’s she been through hasn’t faded.

“I’m really grateful that my daughter is okay and she’s hitting all of the milestones, but I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m still traumatised by my birth experiences to be honest.”

Ms Wetu is still living in home office accommodation which she describes as cramped and sub-standard. She now has 2 young children, but will never forget her first born daughter.

“Losing a child is like a tattoo it never leaves you. I remember it like yesterday. Every day I mourn the loss of my child,” Ms Wetu said.

In response to our investigation a Home Office spokesperson said they do not routinely comment on individual cases and told us “the welfare of asylum seekers is, and always will be, of the utmost importance to us.

“We work closely with the NHS, local authorities, non-governmental organisations and contractors to ensure that asylum seekers can access the health care and support they need.

“But it is 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.”

The accommodation provider in Maria’s case told us that the safety and wellbeing of ‘our occupants is paramount’ and it will investigate the cases raised in our investigation and ‘implement any required changes through our continual improvement processes.’

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