Inquest finds failures in support before the death of young asylum seeker Alexander Tekle 10 January 2022 Before Assistant Coroner Bernard Richmond QCInner West London Coroner’s Court 4 – 7 January 2022 Alexander (‘Alex’) Tekle died on 6 December 2017 aged 18 less than a year after he arrived in the UK as an unaccompanied asylum seeker from Eritrea. At the recent inquest into his death, the Coroner found that opportunities were lost before and after Alex’s 18th birthday to provide him with the help and support that he required. In the months before his death, Alex had significant struggles with alcohol addiction and social services did not put in place effective strategies to address these issues. By December 2017, Alex was profoundly worried about his immigration status and was impacted by the death of a close friend by suicide. Alex took his own life on 6 December 2017 whilst severely intoxicated. Alex’s inquest follows three other inquests relating to the deaths of young Eritrean asylum seekers. These four friends all took their lives within a 16-month period after arriving in the UK. In recent years, there have been an alarming number of suicides among teenagers who arrive in this country as unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, highlighting issues with how people like Alex are looked after by local authorities. Alex loved his family and had a great sense of humour. Alex’s father said that Alex thought things would finally get better for him when he arrived in the UK after an incredibly difficult journey. Alex was a well-loved and sociable person and dreamed of becoming a professional cyclist. In his summing up, the Coroner made the following points: The degree of care that Alex received was affected by issues relating to his age. As a result of this age dispute, Kent County Council were “less willing than they might have been to battle to keep Alex within their care”. Alex was placed in adult Home Office accommodation when he was still a child and Kent Council were “positively encouraging and agitating” the move into Home Office control. Alex was then brought to the attention of the London Borough of Croydon. Both Kent County Council and Croydon Council failed to recognise how complex Alex’s case was. Whilst under the care of Croydon, Alex was allocated an inexperienced social worker who “was not as engaged with him as she could or should have been”. They were unable to recognise his “destructive spiral”. Whilst there were people within social services who provided Alex with a good deal of support, these people were extremely overworked. After Alex turned 18, he needed much more focused attention and support in order to engage with services. When episodes of self-harm became apparent in November 2017, “the proper position should have been that social services should have recognised that this was a problem far bigger than they could cope with”. At this stage, it was “essential” to get Alex into a rehabilitation programme to address the dangers, but this did not happen and assessments of his needs were not adequately carried out. Alex’s mental health was described as not seriously bad enough to warrant forced treatment but was causing him a real risk. This meant that he fell through the net of certain provisions. The Coroner added that he was “quite sure” that Alex’s immigration status was a constant concern for him and added to the stress that he was experiencing. During the period of time that he was in the UK, he would have been very confused and concerned about what was going to happen to him. On Friday 7 January 2022, the Coroner concluded that Alex died by “suicide while the balance of his mind was affected”. In the accompanying narrative conclusion, the Coroner recognised that there were lost opportunities to intervene at an early stage to help Alex. The problems became most acute when he turned 18 and there was a failure to recognise the vital importance of Alex being supported and accompanied to attend appointments to assess him for a rehabilitation programme. The Coroner has given Croydon Council 14 days to make submissions on whether a protocol has been put in place on how to react to a child in care or care-leaver self-harming and on further training for social workers. If this has not happened, the Coroner will write a Prevention of Future Deaths Report recognising the risk of similar deaths occurring. Mr. Tecle Tesfamichel, Alex’s father, said: “Listening to what happened to Alex when he was in the UK has been very hard this week. He made an incredibly difficult journey and he thought that things would finally get better for him in the UK. Hearing that Social Services, who were supposed to be looking after him, were inexperienced and didn’t care for him in the way they should have was shocking. Kent Social Services disbelieved him when he said he was a child, and his social worker at Croydon Social Services decided that he was an adult. This was shocking to me; I thought Social Services were there to take care of vulnerable children. Alex was a traumatised child who needed help, and he shouldn’t have been distrusted and undermined by workers who were there to support him. When Alex self-harmed and said he wanted to kill himself numerous times, I don’t understand why the professionals in his life didn’t take him to emergency services immediately. I know he had problems with alcohol and his life was chaotic, but I think this was a cry for help. Children who are seeking asylum need more care and support, and although people tried to help my son, he was failed at the crucial time. My son Alex was loving, caring and had a great sense of humour. He loved his family, especially his mum, who he loved more than you can imagine. I miss him every day.” The family’s legal team (Olivia Anness and Christina Bodenes of Bhatt Murphy, and Jamie Burton QC of Doughty Street Chambers) said: “As acknowledged by the Coroner, Alex’s case is a deeply tragic one. The harrowing evidence heard this week showed that time and time again a child - who arrived in the UK alone seeking refuge and safety - slipped through the nets. Social services missed vital opportunities to get Alex the support he needed, and during the inquest it became powerfully clear that the most vulnerable children and young people in our society are not being adequately safeguarded, partly due to systemic underfunding of local authorities and lack of resources. Alex was one of four Eritrean young people from the same friendship group, who arrived in the UK as children seeking refuge, to have taken their lives in close succession. As other children like Alex arrive on our shores seeking safety, we look to local authorities and the Home Office to take urgent steps to prevent such tragedies happening again.” Benny Hunter, a friend and advocate of Alex, said: “Many social workers, middle managers and Home Office bureaucrats failed Alex. Every day I fought to get him support, I was witness to gate keeping of services, high levels of suspicion about his general character and a general lack of care for Alex’s wellbeing. There is clear evidence of racism and xenophobia in the way Alex was treated. The wider context of this is that the UK government has cut the budgets available to local authority children’s services to the bone. This government has scapegoated asylum-seekers and attacked unaccompanied children as frauds. Border violence is currently used as a legitimate means of immigration control. The logic of the ‘Hostile Environment’ is so entrenched that some social workers feel it is their job to protect overstretched services from intrusion rather than protect children from harm. Alex was my little brother. He was deeply caring. He was fearless. Everybody who met him, wanted to get to know him and be his friend. He loved his friends. He loved his mother and father. He wanted to study, to improve his English, to give back to his family. He will be forever missed by his parents, his older brother, his two younger sisters, and those of us who were his friends. We want to make sure this never happens to anyone ever again. I will continue to remember him every day.” INQUEST Caseworker, Nancy Kelehar, said: “The Coroner has rightly recognised significant failings in Alex’s care. Both of the councils involved in looking after Alex were unable or, at worst, unwilling to provide the support that he desperately needed. The hostile environment for migrants and the under resourcing of public services creates the conditions in which young people who have experienced significant trauma are unable to access sufficient support, despite the duty of care owed to them. Their trauma is compounded by the period spent in limbo not knowing what will happen to them. The deaths of young people like Alex, who were seeking safety and compassion after fleeing persecution as children in Eritrea, are at the sharpest end of the consequences of Home Office policy. All of those who have died or suffered in similar circumstances deserved better from this country.” ENDS NOTES TO EDITORSFor further information, interview requests and to note your interest, please contact Lucy McKay or Nancy Kelehar on 020 7263 1111, [email protected] or [email protected]. The family are represented by INQUEST Lawyers Group members Olivia Anness and Christina Bodenes of Bhatt Murphy Solicitors and Jamie Burton QC of Doughty Street Chambers. Journalists should refer to the Samaritans Media Guidelines for reporting suicide and self-harm and guidance for reporting on inquests. INQUEST is the only charity providing expertise on state related deaths and their investigation to bereaved people, lawyers, advice and support agencies, the media and parliamentarians. Our specialist casework includes death in police and prison custody, immigration detention, mental health settings and deaths involving multi-agency failings or where wider issues of state and corporate accountability are in question, such as the deaths and wider issues around Hillsborough and Grenfell Tower. Our policy, parliamentary, campaigning and media work is grounded in the day to day experience of working with bereaved people. Please refer to INQUEST the organisation in all capital letters in order to distinguish it from the legal hearing.