A mother living in extreme poverty discovered dead next to her malnourished baby might not have suffered her fate if the colour of her skin had been different, a leading equality campaigner has told HuffPost UK.
Glasgow police found 34-year-old Mercy Baguma dead in a flat on Saturday. She was beside her one-year-old son, weakened from several days of hunger.
Baguma, an asylum seeker originally from Uganda, is understood to have lost her job at a restaurant after her limited leave to remain in this country expired. She had been relying on food donations from friends and charitable organisations as she lived in extreme poverty.
Mandu Reid, leader of the Women’s Equality Party, has told HuffPost UK there is no doubt in her mind that the fact Baguma was a Black female refugee was a factor in her death and in the relative lack of coverage it has received.
“It took a lot of activism, energy and pushing to get that recognised as an issue and investigated and Mercy Baguma’s case is an example of that worrying trend.”
Reid, the first person of colour to lead a UK political party, believes Baguma’s “appalling death” hasn’t received the attention it deserves.
“One of my reflections of this terrible tragedy is that it is not getting the attention it deserves and is going below the radar,” she said. “I found it deeply disappointing that this wasn’t a headline or lead story everywhere and that it wasn’t getting the reverence it deserved.
“The gravity of the situation is such that it needs to be confronted, acknowledged and faced up to.
“I think if Mercy had not been a Black woman and a refugee, her death would have received more coverage and attention.
“If she was a white woman rather than a Black one, I also feel she would have been on the receiving end of more help so her death might have been avoided.”
““Black women are often seen as expendable... I think if Mercy had not been a Black woman and a refugee, her death would have received more coverage and attention.”
Reid, a candidate for mayor of London, says it is deeply disturbing that in 2020 we “live in a Britain where a woman can perish next to her extremely malnourished baby because she did not have recourse to public funds”.
“Even the most callous people who have a dim view of asylum seekers would not want our country to be a place that completely lacks humanity,” she said.
“If we don’t face up to these things and women like Mercy are seen as collateral damage we can shrug off, it is very depressing and a sign we are heading to darker times.
“We are in trouble when ideology trumps humanity, decency and justice, and this is what seems to be happening in this case.”
Reid says it is a miracle that Baguma’s baby survived his ordeal – no thanks to the UK’s policies, which clearly have real life and death consequences.
“This is the consequence of an immigration system that tries to keep people out at all costs,” said Reid. “It is also the consequence of more than a decade of austerity cuts that have punished women and minorities.
“They have been at the sharp end of these policies and Mercy’s case shows how deadly they are.
“This is the consequence of an immigration system that tries to keep people out at all costs. It is also the consequence of more than a decade of austerity cuts that have punished women and minorities.”
“It is a miracle her little boy survived. It is so utterly wrong when we are the sixth richest country in the world that a young infant is seen as disposable, expendable and unworthy of support.
“He is a baby. At the very minimum, we have a duty of care to support the most helpless and vulnerable in our society. It is not right that someone has zero access to support to sustain themselves.”
Reid told HuffPost UK anyone who is not ashamed and embarrassed by the death of an asylum seeker needed to “take a long, hard look at themselves.”
“Lives are being lost and people are suffering and perishing. Their potentials are being extinguished,” she said. “The government has an open goal to adjust the support available to women in Mercy’s situation.
“I urge the prime minister to use his power for good rather than try to stoke a culture war.”
She added: ”I am ashamed and embarrassed and so angry that in contemporary Britain, a mother can perish next to her malnourished baby as a direct result of callous, inhumane government policy.”
Charity Positive Action in Housing revealed that Baguma had pleaded to them for help just over a week before her death and that they contacted her within a day to assess her for a crisis payment from their Emergency Relief Fund.
Its director Robina Quereshi told HuffPost UK there had been complete neglect of responsibility and a failure in a duty of care to this mother and baby.
“We have a humanitarian crisis in Glasgow and no one is doing anything about it,” she said.
“Why are mothers and babies being left to go hungry in this city? Why is it being left to charities and volunteers to pick up the pieces?
“Does society have anything to say about that other than to call them a drain on society?
“Mercy had no money and we are the last resort for so many people. Every day is an emergency for us.
“As a mother with a baby, she was a high priority for a crisis grant and Mercy had applied like hundreds of others left functionally destitute in Glasgow.
“We are working on the ground with the support of volunteers and see first hand the misery being created by the asylum process.
“Would this mother be alive if she was not forced out of her job by this cruel system that stops you from working and paying your way because a piece of paper says your leave to remain has expired?
“I’m sure Mercy’s son will want to ask this and other questions once he is old enough.”
“Why are mothers and babies being left to go hungry in this city? Why is it being left to charities and volunteers to pick up the pieces?”
Positive Action in Housing is calling for a full public inquiry into Baguma’s death. The charity has also launched a fundraising appeal for the future welfare of her child.
A separate GoFundMe appeal for Baguma’s funeral expenses has more than tripled its £10,000 target.
Baguma’s death is at least the third tragedy to hit Glasgow’s refugee community in less than four months.
On May 6, a 30-year-old Syrian refugee Adnan Walid Elbi was found dead in his room at a guesthouse. Then, on June 26, a man was shot dead after stabbing six people including a police officer at the Park Inn Hotel. Other asylum seekers had cited concerns about the state of his mental health.
Quereshi said: “The fact is there is no safety net if you’re a refugee or migrant. You are left destitute and without resources. And you’re left silenced by far right rhetoric for being forced to ask for help.
“All our efforts since lockdown began have been focused on trying to help people just survive and retain hope.
“Home Office asylum policy has created unimaginable hardship for refugees and migrant households in this city.
“We demand a public inquiry and Mercy’s death to be investigated alongside Adnan Walid Elbi and the Park Inn tragedy.”
African Challenge Scotland, an organisation that works to relieve poverty and promote active lifestyles in Scotland through sport and education, has shared a video on social media revealing it provided a food parcel to Baguma in June this year.
Police Scotland has confirmed they had received a report of the sudden death on Saturday. They said it was being treated as unexplained, but not suspicious, and that a report would be submitted to the procurator fiscal – whose role is similar to that of a coroner and public prosecutor in England.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “This is a tragic situation and our condolences go to Ms Baguma’s family.
“The Home Office takes the well-being of all those in the asylum system extremely seriously and we will be conducting a full investigation into Ms Baguma’s case.”