A South African woman who collapsed during an attempted removal from the UK was accused by immigration officials of faking illness to avoid being put on a plane but died five days later, the Guardian can reveal.
The Home Office has referred the case of Nancy Motsamai, 35, who died on 12 March, to the independent prisons and probation ombudsman for investigation.
Her husband, Fusi Motsamai, also 35, has condemned the Home Office’s treatment of his wife. He also said: “We repeatedly asked the Home Office to release Nancy’s passport to allow her body to be transported to her home country for burial but they did not.”
His distress was compounded when the Home Office sent a text to his wife’s phone on 30 March, more than two weeks after her death, warning her of penalties if she did not attend an appointment at a Home Office reporting centre on 5 April.
The Home Office has confirmed that the text was sent after they were notified about Motsamai’s death and said it was “working urgently” to pass her passport on to the South African authorities. A spokesman said the texting error was caused by an automated system that had not been updated.
The couple’s barrister, Linda Appiah, had advised the government’s legal department of her client’s death in a letter dated 16 March. The Home Office said it was not notified until 23 March, a week before the text was sent.
The couple had been living and working in the UK for more than a decade, but ran into difficulties when they applied to renew their visas. Both were ordered to report regularly to Eaton House, a Home Office centre in Hounslow. When they attended on 7 March, they were told they were to be forcibly removed from the UK that day and put on a plane to South Africa.
Appiah said she had filed a judicial review claim on 5 March over the Home Office’s handling of the couple’s visa application. The Home Office, however, insists there were no legal barriers to removing the couple two days later.
“Nancy said she felt unwell while we were at Eaton House,” said Fusi Motsamai. When the couple were taken to Heathrow airport several hours later she collapsed in a corridor.
“An immigration official at the airport accused Nancy of faking her collapse to avoid being put on a plane,” her husband said. “He told Nancy that he would handcuff her hands and feet and make her walk to the plane like a penguin, and that he would put her onto the plane even if he had to carry her.”
Officials then decided to put the couple into detention instead.
“We were detained separately, but after we were released Nancy told me that a nurse at the detention centre told her she was too ill to be detained, but the nurse was overruled by a superior and she was held overnight,” said Fusi Motsamai.
The next morning both of them were released, but she collapsed and died of a pulmonary embolism five days later.
Nancy’s body was eventually flown to South Africa on 5 April after the country’s high commission agreed to provide an emergency travel document.
Fusi contrasted his wife’s treatment with her attitude to others. “Nancy was the kind of person who would light up the room with her smile,” he said. “She loved helping others and volunteered to help at the church with different youth programmes. She believed in justice and used to get cross when injustice happened to others and no one was held accountable for it.”
Rev Lucy Brierley of Woking United Reformed Church, which supported the couple and continues to support Fusi, condemned the UK’s immigration removal system as a travesty and an embarrassment. “This case is an indictment of the administrative chaos in the UK visa and immigration system, “ she said.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Our thoughts and condolences are with Mrs Motsamai’s family at this difficult time. We take our responsibilities towards detainees’ health and welfare seriously. When there are claims that the highest standards have not been met these will be investigated thoroughly.”