The treatment of the Okwo family
23 January 2023
On Monday 16 January, Henry and Blessing Okwo with their three children aged 4 months (Henry), 2 years (Beauty) and 4 years old (Ferdinand) endured sub-zero temperatures for over 12 hours in Glasgow after a catalogue of indifference, safeguarding failures and outright neglect by those who should know better, the Home Office, its contractors Migrant Help, Mears Group and the Police. What happened to this family is the tip of the iceberg. What you're about to read are the facts according to Henry and Blessing Okwo backed up by screenshots, photos and messages. This is happening to many others whose voices are simply not heard. In this case, as soon as people realised what happened, they showered this family with love.
Neglect, indifference and safeguarding failures is, of course, something the Home Office excels at, as Sunday's investigation in The Observer newspaper testifies: Scores of child asylum seekers kidnapped from Home Office hotel
Dr Henry Okwo is an academic with a PhD, studying for a Master's degree at Strathclyde University. He lived in a private tenancy in Coatbridge, outside Glasgow, paid for by his job at a Scottish company. Henry's wife, Blessing, is also a graduate but abandoned her studies after receiving threats in Nigeria. The family was forced to claim asylum on December 15, 2022, and ask for emergency support. The Home Office wrongly told Henry he could not work*. Henry followed the rules and gave up his minimum wage job to comply with the asylum policy. From this point on, the family descended into a spiral of extreme poverty, destitution and total loss of agency.
We found shocking neglect and a complete failure of duty of care towards the Okwo family when they turned to the Home Office and its contractors, Mears Group and MigrantHelp, for emergency support, when they claimed asylum. At every turn, basic humanity was missing; no one appeared to take responsibility, and everyone involved appeared to be doing their job while carrying out no risk assessment. (Vulnerability assessment failures, or in other words failures of common decency and basic humanity, were identified in relation to other asylum reports which sadly ended in tragedy).
At around 2 AM on Sunday, January 15, Henry Okwo contacted our emergency team:
"I am Henry Okwo. My family and I are asylum seekers in Scotland. We have three kids- Ferdinand (4 years old), Beauty (2 years old) and Henry (4 months old). Please, however possible, we need help. Our case is such that since we registered for asylum on 14/12/2022 and were restricted from working, it has been extremely tough for us all. Our children are barely feeding well; our rent expired yesterday, and I could only purchase £5 worth of data for myself out of the only £10.95 we've had for over three weeks. While we have reached out to Migrant Help, we have received no support, and it is badly telling on us, as my wife now has to resort to exclusive breastfeeding for our baby as we are unable to afford baby milk for the infant, which the other toddlers prefer. Please, help us with whatever support there is, including reaching out to MigrantHelp, if you can. .. We are expected to vacate where we presently reside tomorrow as our rent expires on Friday. We have been trying to get support from Migrant Help. We have put in an s98 application, but it is yet to be approved ... I am a student at Strathclyde and should resume lectures tomorrow, but while my studies are extremely important to me, that is the least of my concerns now, being that my children are at risk."
We immediately escalated the case to MigrantHelp as Urgent and organised crisis support from our Emergency Relief Fund.
The next day, Monday, Jan 16, Henry and Blessing felt under duress to vacate their accommodation with their three children. Amid this emergency, as the delicate balance of their lives and dreams disintegrated in front of their eyes, they could not comprehend their rights as non-tenant occupants. They have confirmed that they did not willingly give up the occupancy, rent was paid as well as a rent deposit.
A yellow snow and ice warning with temperatures around minus two. With nowhere else to go, the family were forced to shelter in the communal corridor of their former accommodation from the sub-zero temperatures with their suitcases and belongings while feeling pressured to leave the building. But to where? Temperatures outside were freezing. They had three children, the youngest a newborn. Again, our Senior Casework Coordinator escalated their case with MigrantHelp insisting that they urge the Home Office to approve their emergency housing request immediately, which they asked for one month previously.
At 4.50 pm, MigrantHelp called Henry to say that emergency support was approved and to "wait in the street so that he was visible to the driver who would take them to their accommodation". To avoid being in the way of neighbours, Henry moved the family's belongings onto the street while Blessing hid with the children near the back door.
At 10 PM, a driver arrived; he was contracted by a company called CMAC which is contracted by Mears Group - the Home Office accommodation contractor. The family had waited over six hours at this point. The children were distressed. The driver said he would take Blessing & the two younger children, and a second car would take Henry and his son. Henry begged him to wait so the vehicles could go together. Blessing was crying, new to the country and did not want her husband to leave her alone.
The driver said he couldn’t wait as it was a long journey. Henry stopped what he was doing when he heard this. He asked the driver where exactly they were being taken. Henry had assumed they were going to Glasgow. It is customary for Mears Group to move asylum seekers "blind" - no address given. The driver said York, England. Henry was shocked and said there was some mistake & he had to call MigrantHelp. The driver left without them.
10.45 pm. Phone messages confirm Henry’s view that he felt pressured to vacate the building and threatened with the police being called. As new immigrants, Henry and his wife, Blessing, were terrified that they and their children would freeze on the streets. They had barely eaten for days. They had no money, no accommodation or transport, three children and luggage. At this point, the family had been in the cold corridor for over 7 hours.
The police arrived at 11 pm and took the family to Motherwell Police Station in a police van. Henry states that the police told him there was no room in the police station, so they would need to stay in the van.
Henry observed the officers going into the station to get warm. He observed the male police officer rubbing his hands to keep warm and saying, “it’s so cold”. Henry noticed the temperature inside the van was minus 2 degrees. The four-month-old baby’s nappy was heavily soiled; it was too cold to change him. For the next 4 hours and 17 minutes, the family remained in the van. The recorded temperature from midnight was -2 to -5 degrees.
At 3.17 AM, Motherwell Police released the family from the van. After spending over 12 hours in sub-zero temperatures, the family was driven to the Embassy Hotel, Newcastle, run by Mears Group, arriving at 6 am. But they were told there was no room. The driver left them there. The family slept for 2 hrs in the hotel lobby.
At 8.00 AM on Jan 17, a Mears official told them they were going to York. On arrival, the children slept from exhaustion. The two older children developed bleeding lips from the cold. They could not shake off the cold. The family spent over 12 hours in sub-zero temperatures, taken hundreds of miles from their home in Glasgow. We dread to think what could have become of the children, especially a four-month-old baby left in cold temperatures in the corridor of their now former accommodation and then a police van for hours.
On Friday, Jan 20, our Homelessness Team decided to bring the family back to Glasgow and build their case to remain in Glasgow. Henry is doing a Master’s degree at the University of Strathclyde, for which he owed thousands. The children have appointments for immunisations. Their lawyer, McGlashan Mackay, is in Glasgow. They are a human family, not inconvenient parcels to be dumped where ever is convenient for the contractor. They are currently staying in a hotel room paid for by our Emergency Relief Fund (funded by our members, the public, faith groups, and many organisations, including trade unions, churches, social housing providers, teachers' unions, the Quakers and the Iona Community).
From January 29, they will stay with one of our refugee hosts in Glasgow while our Homelessness Team works with McGlashan Mackay to accommodate them in Glasgow through the Home Office. But it's safe to say the family are traumatised and bewildered by how they have been treated despite behaving with the utmost decorum throughout their ordeal. There are many questions unanswered. Please write to your elected representative in your own words and cc us.
Since news of their plight became public, the Okwo family have been overwhelmed with an outpouring of love and support from members of the public. It's testimony to the fact that there are many good, decent, compassionate people out there. Henry and Blessing's journey to peace and resettlement is not over. To help them rebuild their lives, donate at this secure CAF link. All funds will go to the family, and any gift aid raised will go to the Emergency Relief Fund to help others. For more info, please email firstname.lastname@example.org