Asylum seeker death in Dover from 'natural causes' - 07/07/05

The family of 40-year-old Kurdish asylum seeker, Elmas Ozmico, have expressed concerns at a recent inquest verdict into her death that found that she died of natural causes.

Concerns centre around the fact that despite asking for medical help she was not taken to hospital until 19 hours after she arrived at Dover.

Elmas Ozmico arrived at Dover on 8 July 2003 after travelling clandestinely from Turkey with her two children and nephew, to join her husband, who had indefinite leave to remain. The journey from Istanbul to Dover took eight days, with the family in cramped conditions in the back of a lorry. During the journey Elmas developed an abscess on her thigh. On arrival at Dover, the family claimed asylum and were taken into custody where, within ten minutes, Elmas' nephew, Emurallah Sanci, requested a doctor and an interpreter. He says this request was ignored as were subsequent ones. The family spent the night in detention and the following day Elmas herself requested medical help. But it was not until she collapsed at 5pm that workers at Migrant Helpline realised that Elmas was very ill and that she needed an ambulance to take her to hospital. She died from septicaemia/ necrotising fasciitis four days later in William Harvey hospital in Ashford after undergoing two operations.

The inquest was unusual in that it had been delayed for a number of months as officials tried to find a place large enough to accommodate all seven 'interested' parties - the family, the immigration service, the Dover detention centre, the police, the hospital, Migrant Helpline and the medical inspectorate at the port.

Immigration officers at the inquest admitted that they failed to follow both Port Medical Inspectorate (PMI) and Port of Dover guidelines on access to medical attention/calling ambulances and they also initially failed to provide an interpreter for the family. CCTV footage also showed Elmas looking unwell on the evening of 8 July 2003 and the following morning at the Port of Dover detention centre. Port of Dover police and first-aiders also told the inquest that they thought it unnecessary to see or speak to Elmas before making a decision that an ambulance was not required. Immigration Officers told the inquest that they took the view that Elmas Ozmico was 'unable to walk' and had a wound on her leg. Furthermore, immigration officers and a Home Office interpreter gave evidence that it was apparent on the morning of 9 July 2003 that Elmas Ozmiko was unwell and needed medical attention. The inquest was also told that there was no doctor available at the port despite it being the largest in the England.

The inquest was told by Bilal Sanci, another of Elmas' nephews, and Hac Pekkelo, her husband, that they had called the Immigration Service at Dover on the evening of the day she arrived and told staff that Elmas was unwell and needed medical attention. But they said that no action was taken.

The inquest was told by surgeons at William Harvey hospital and other medical experts that the earlier the intervention, the higher the likelihood of survival for someone suffering from necrotising fasciitis. Professor Geddes indicated that had Elmas been taken to hospital earlier, she would, on the balance of probabilities, have survived.

Following Elmas' death, the Home Office conducted its own internal inquiry which found that there were 'missed opportunities' in providing help for Elmas. But this report remains unpublished and its findings were not presented to the jury nor were they provided copies of the report.

Deborah Coles, co-director of INQUEST, who supported the family, told IRR news: 'This inquest has heard deeply disturbing evidence about the lack of humanity afforded to an asylum seeker in dire need of medical care. The Home Office report into the death must now be published and the lessons must be learnt in order to avoid future deaths.'

A recent report by the Chief Inspector of Prisons into three short term holding centres has found that the healthcare provision at all of the centres inspected was 'inadequate'. One of those inspected was the Port of Dover. This finding will add to the grief of the family of Elmas Ozmico.

By Harmit Athwal
7 July 2005, 3:00pm, Institute of Race Relations