Windrush migrant’s death ruled natural despite stress of Home Office ‘hostile environment’ policy

Dexter Bristol felt pressure about proving his status, coroner told

Vincent Wood
Monday 07 October 2019 23:49 BST
In 2018 ministers received furious backlash over the treatment of the Windrush generation
In 2018 ministers received furious backlash over the treatment of the Windrush generation (Handout)

A Windrush migrant trying to prove his British citizenship died of natural causes, a coroner has ruled following a second inquest which considered the impact of Home Office policy on his death.

Dexter Bristol collapsed and died on a north London street in March last year after suffering acute heart failure.

An initial report into his death found that he had passed away through natural causes, however officials were forced to reopen the investigation after his family argued that the role of the Home Office’s hostile environment policy in his death should be considered.

During the hearing the coroner was told that the chronic stress suffered by a Windrush migrant as he attempted to prove his British citizenship would have contributed to the heart condition that claimed his life.

But handing down her ruling, senior coroner Mary Hassell upheld that the causes of his death had been natural - stating that she agreed his application to remain in the UK was a "stressor", but she believed that he had other stressors, including being anxious about his relationship with his mother.

"Stress is known to increase the risk of sudden cardiac death," she told the court. "He had a number of stresses in his life but heart disease was the underlying cause of death."

She also referred to a letter found in Bristol's flat following his death - but believed to have been written two years before - in which he wrote about taking his own life.

"That's quite clear that's not the cause of his death. He talks about having been on his own and since a small child always being lost," she said. "This was another stressor."

The 58-year-old was eight when he arrived in the UK with his mother, Sentina D’Artanyan-Bristol. She provided her passport as identification at the time.

They were two of hundreds of people who came from the Caribbean between 1948 and 1971, named the Windrush generation because some of them travelled on the HMT Empire Windrush ship.

Many were later threatened with deportation and others were forced to prove their right to remain in the country or lose access to services.

In the run-up to his death, Bristol was sacked from his cleaning job after it was found that he did not have a passport. He was also denied benefits as he could not prove that he was in the country legally.

Professor Jaswinder Gill, consultant cardiologist at Guy and St Thomas’ Hospital, told St Pancras Coroner’s Court that Bristol’s concerns about potentially losing his income and home in Camden, north London, “may have contributed to the fact he had an arrhythmia” – an irregular heart beat that can exacerbate heart conditions.

“He was under what I believe from looking at the notes was quite substantial stress from losing his income and abode, and that would have contributed to his heightened risk of arrhythmias,” he added. “I therefore do believe that the excess stress... would have contributed towards his demise.”

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However, his account was disputed by pathologist Dr Alan Bates who said that Bristol could have been experiencing the arrhythmia for more than 10 years.

The Home Office’s Alan Payne also said that there was no evidence that he was going to lose his house or be removed.

Mr Gill nonetheless insisted that Bristol’s lack of documentation, which proved his right to work, would have contributed to his stress. “I think the process of having to prove his residence status was something he had to undertake, and I think the Home Office would agree with that,” he added.

Bristol’s family walked out of the previous hearing after it was decided that the Home Office’s role in his death would not be considered – a decision later quashed by the high court.

Government policy, as described in 2012 by then home secretary Theresa May, aimed to create “a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants”. As a result it became difficult for people who could not prove their citizenship to access hospital, housing and banking services.

Long-term UK residents were denied access to services, held in detention or removed, despite having lived legally in the country for decades. Although they had been granted citizenship, many Windrush-era migrants did not hold documentation to prove their status.

In the earlier proceedings a lawyer who had been working with Bristol to help him obtain a passport claimed that his client had felt unable to change doctors due to the pressure of proving his legal status.

In a statement given at the time, she said: “I saw him getting more and more upset and stressed by the ongoing process to prove he was a British citizen.”

Additional reporting by Press Association

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