Nigerian man who died in detention centre ‘had been unwell for weeks but not seen by a doctor’

May Bulman
Getty

A Nigerian man who died in a British detention centre repeatedly said he felt unwell but was not seen by a medical professional, his family have claimed.

Oscar Okwurime, 34, was discovered lying in his cell at the Harmondsworth removal centre by another detainee last week. The cause of his death is unknown but the Home Office said it was being investigated.

His older brother told The Independent his sibling said he was feeling unwell during his first week in the removal centre.

“I told him straight away: tell the authorities there and they will get you checked,” said the 44-year-old from London, who asked to be named only as Alex.

“That first week, they didn’t do anything. And the second week he said they were still saying nothing. The last time I saw him, he told me he was on a waiting list of about 400. He said he was feeling pain in his side. He hadn’t had any health issues before.”

He added: “It was a pure case of negligence. If someone is in your custody and telling you they’re not feeling well, it’s your duty of care to get them checked.”

Alex said that before his brother’s death he had been detained around three weeks when he entered the country on a visitor’s visa and told the authorities he wished to seek asylum.

“I’m feeling so livid now. Any time I’m alone, I’m in tears. It’s terrible, It’s very painful. I don’t know what to do,” the Nigerian national added.

A former detainee who was close with Mr Okwurime while he was in Harmondsworth said his friend hadn’t been feeling well and that he had wanted to see a doctor but that “this was not a quick process” in the detention centre.

The man, who did not want to be named, was released from the centre the night before Mr Okwurime died.

News of his friend’s death came as a shock to him because Mr Okwurime had walked him to the gate to see him off just hours earlier.

“He carried one of my bags. We were laughing together. Then I called him up early in the morning, just to chat, and he didn’t answer and then later on someone called me to say he had died. I’m still in shock now,” he said. “I’ve heard he was screaming. There’s a button in the room but they don’t always come. They’re supposed to check through the door in the night. Why didn’t he get help on time?”

Mr Okwurime was a “very intelligent” and “easy-going” person and his death had left him “heartbroken”, the former detainee said.

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“Was he suffering from high pressure? I remember him telling me that when they detained him the nurse who checked his blood pressure, in his words, jumped off his seat because his blood pressure was so high. But they never checked up on him,” he said.

“Maybe it was a heart attack, maybe high blood pressure. Whatever ailment he had, being in detention triggered it.”

Another detainee, Juskin Eniolorunda, said Mr Okwurime had told him he felt unwell and had been trying to get an appointment with the nurse.

The 42-year-old said his friend ”was a jovial person. He was cool. He was young in age, but very mature.”

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He added: “I don’t think he had ever been locked up in his life. Not everyone can get used to this. He didn’t commit any crime, nothing. Why do they keep doing this to people? It makes me feel so bad. No one can hear our voice.”

Emma Ginn, director of the Medical Justice charity, said Mr Okwurime’s death was “a tragedy” that was “acutely felt by detainees left behind, locked in immigration removal centres”.

She added: “Indefinite detention coupled with inadequate healthcare can exacerbate detainees’ existing medical condition can and be the cause of mental illness. The Home Office is well aware of the issues.”

Lucy McKay, policy and communications officer at the Inquest charity, said a number of recent inquiries had exposed the “dismissive” culture of healthcare and detention staff in immigration removal centres, as well as the human cost of indefinite detention.

She added: “Bereaved families and their legal teams face long and complex battles to get to the truth of what happened in these cases, and are constantly faced with a response of denial, delay and obfuscation from the Home Office.”

It comes as the High Court halted the removal of three men who may be able to provide evidence about Mr Okwurime’s death. They had been set to be put on a charter flight in Tuesday night.

But the court refused to widen this order to other detainees on the flight for whom it had not yet been established whether they could provide information about the death.

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It comes after the government rejected widespread calls to end the indefinite detention of immigrants in the UK, claiming a time limit would “severely constrain” the ability to maintain effective immigration control.

In July, former Conservative cabinet ministers attacked the Home Office over its refusal to introduce a time limit on immigration detention, saying locking people up indefinitely was “clearly perverse”.

A Home Office spokesperson said that as the death was subject to investigation, it would be inappropriate to comment further on the case.

They added: “Any death in detention is a tragic event and our thoughts and condolences are with the family and friends of Mr Okwurime.”

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