Alex, Filmon, Mulue and Osman thought they were safe in Britain. So why did the teenage friends take their own lives? | Refugees

For a while, the four teenage boys, Alex, Filmon, Osman and Mulue, did a reasonably good job of looking after each other. Filmon and Mulue had met in Eritrea before they embarked on their long, dangerous journey to Britain; the others became friends en route or in London, in a park near a Home Office registration centre for unaccompanied child refugees. Their similar backgrounds drew them together, as did the shared experience of travelling 3,300 miles in search of safety.

Mulue and Alex had both spent time in foster care before moving into independent accommodation; Osman and Filmon were living in a hostel in north London. They had all become used to surviving without parents, instead leaning on each other for support. All of them were also struggling with the unsettling reality of their precarious new lives, which was so different from the expectations they had clung to during their traumatic journeys.

They battled against homesickness. Sometimes they would try to ward it off by cooking meals together, but having left home aged 13 or 14, their skills were basic. “Once Filmon got very hungry during the night and wanted some food. He had no idea how to cook, and neither did I, so we just boiled potatoes with salt and ate together,” another friend, Abel (not his real name), remembers. Sometimes they danced together.

The young friends worried about each other, and tried to ensure they all remained on the straight and narrow – getting cross if they thought one of their group was drinking too much or behaving badly. Osman, who was Muslim, invited his friends to his house to celebrate Easter because they were Orthodox Eritrean Christians. “He did this for us, even though he didn’t celebrate Easter. I remember thinking how kind this was,” Abel said, in an inquest statement. “We all washed our clothes and dressed in some of Osman’s clothes. I still have some of Osman’s clothes now, which makes me very sad to think about.”

But in the end, the stress of their experiences and the lack of consistent support in the UK proved too much. In the space of 16 months, all four of the boys killed themselves: first in November 2017, Filmon Yemane, 18; then a couple of weeks later, Alexander Tekle, 18; then in May 2018, Osman Ahmed Nur, 19; and finally, in February 2019, Mulubrhane Medhane Kfleyosus (Mulue), 19.

Their deaths shone a spotlight on the systems Britain has in place for supporting vulnerable child refugees. A series of inquests, the last of which concluded last month, drew critical conclusions about failings in the care that the state provided to a group of boys who desperately needed help.

Robel, 17, knew all four boys. He is also a refugee from Eritrea; the quartet treated him like their younger brother. He wants them to be remembered, he tells me, when we meet in a west London cafe – and he hopes their deaths will trigger change.

Robel (who has asked for his full name not to be printed) was only 12 when he left his family in Eritrea. Like his four friends, he was fleeing Eritrea’s poverty, human rights abuses and its harsh conscription, which begins at 18 and is open-ended – it usually lasts for between five and 10 years, but can last up to 20. He met Alex at the refugee encampment in Calais; the older boy immediately took him under his wing. Robel keeps a photograph of the two of them eating together in a tent in the camp, both looking strikingly young.

Robel (left) and with Alex in the Calais camp.

“He was kind to me. He teased me a bit, because he was three years older, but he was quite small too, a kid, like all of us,” Robel remembers. They spent an afternoon playing football with other teenagers near the slum-like settlement on the town’s outskirts. Neither of them was very good. “We lost, but we had a really good time. He made jokes that would make everyone laugh. He was a really caring person.”

Alex’s father, Tecle Tesfamichel, told the inquest the same thing about his son, describing by phone how, when his son watched him work at his carpentry job, he would remind his father to wear gloves so he didn’t injure himself. Alex didn’t much like maths, but was good at geography; as a child he had dreamed of becoming a professional cyclist. Tecle knew that Alex’s journey to the UK had been really difficult, but also that his son had shielded his family from the most disturbing details. “When he was living in a tent [in France] he didn’t have enough food or warm clothing, and it was freezing. During one conversation he told me he had shaved his head because he had caught head lice … But he would tell us not to worry, that once he had got his papers and found a job, he would send money to help and support us.”

Robel bumped into Alex again after they had both managed to make their way to London (Alex in a refrigerated lorry, Robel in the back of a van), and was delighted, and relieved, to see a familiar face. They would meet to play table football and listen to music together after school at a Refugee Council support group. Later Robel was introduced to Mulue, so they could attend the Eritrean Orthodox church together. He remembers Mulue sticking his head out of the window and throwing his keys down, so Robel could come up and join him; Robel was impressed by how relaxed and friendly he was. At that time Robel was being looked after by foster carers and had no pocket money, so was always hungry after school. “Mulue used to look after me; he’d buy me chicken wings,” he remembers.

Robel met Filmon only a few times, in the park near the Home Office, but knew Osman better. Osman borrowed his hat, a black woollen number decorated with a star, and liked it. “I gave it to him.” He remembers that his friends were worried about Osman, who had become increasingly paranoid and was scared by the voices he heard in his head. “I didn’t feel I could ask him if he was OK; I didn’t know him well enough to talk to him about it,” he says.

When he died, Osman was known to be worried about his refugee statusWhen he died, Osman was known to be worried about his refugee status.

The four boys didn’t often talk about their experiences on their journeys, but details that came out at the inquests reveal some of their horrific ordeals: people traffickers attempting to kidnap them to sell them on, routine violence from rival smuggling gangs, travelling with 150 people in the back of one lorry, friends drowning in the Mediterranean, experiencing torture in a migrant holding camp in Libya, going for 11 days without food, contracting malaria, along with constant thirst and hunger.

After surviving all this came the disappointment of arriving in the UK. “I had an idea we would come to a really good place, where people have everything,” Robel says, laughing at his naivety. “But you arrive here and it’s not what you imagined, and you can’t accept that. You don’t have a home. You’re worried about your family. It’s really difficult.” Abel echoed the point in the statement he gave at Alex’s inquest. “When we were travelling from Eritrea to the UK, we thought the UK was like heaven. We thought everything would be OK once we got here.”

Swedish research suggests the risk of suicide among unaccompanied child refugees is nine times that of children of the same age in the Swedish population. There is no equivalent research in the UK, but campaigners are aware of at least 13 deaths of teenage refugees in the past five years. Most of them have been Eritrean, possibly because Eritreans and Ethiopians have together recently made up the largest nationality group of unaccompanied minors to arrive in the UK. About 80% of Eritrean asylum claims are granted – a reflection of the seriousness of the threats they face at home. But it takes, on average, 550 days for applications to be approved – a period of uncertainty that leads to heightened stress.

The circumstances of each of the boys’ deaths are very different, but all fell through the cracks of the system, and the coroners acknowledged that none of them received the full care and attention they should have.

A coroner noted that staff at the sheltered housing where Filmon was living were aware that his condition was deteriorating, but failed to escalate concerns about him being suicidal to the correct teams. When he died, Osman, who was learning English and training to be a carpenter, was known to be worried about whether his refugee status was going to be revoked. He had started to self-medicate with alcohol and cannabis, and the coroner found he had not received the support he should have done when he described feeling suicidal.

The coroner at Mulue’s inquest said the seriousness of his mental health issues had not been recognised. Alex’s inquest concluded that he had wrongly been assessed as being an adult by Home Office staff. As a result, rather than being sent to live with a foster family, he was moved to accommodation for adult asylum seekers, where he was violently assaulted and began drinking heavily. The mistake was rectified but even then overworked social workers struggled to get him the help he urgently needed. His inquest noted that this mistake contributed to the “destructive spiral” that led to his death.

Mulue was wrongly assessed as an adult and sent to adult accommodation where he was violently assaulted and began to drink heavily.Mulue was wrongly assessed as an adult and sent to adult accommodation where he was violently assaulted and began to drink heavily. Photograph: Handout

Robel says there was a key difference between the way he and his four, now dead, friends were cared for on arrival in the UK. Robel, who was 13 when he arrived, was allocated foster parents. They kept a close eye on what he was doing – if on a school night he wanted to stay out late with his Eritrean friends, they would bombard him with anxious text messages, instructing him to come home immediately. If he ignored them, they said he wouldn’t be allowed to play football in the Sunday league.

“They would tell the coach to keep me on the bench. I really loved football,” he says. He resented it at the time, but now recognises how important it was to be treated as a child who needed boundaries and support like any other. “I was being annoying, but they made me come back on time and go to school. It would have been helpful for the others to have someone like that in their lives.”

Last year dozens of charities called on the government to make a string of policy changes to support young refugees, after these deaths and a number of others among teenage asylum seekers who fled persecution. But, given funding cuts to local authorities and the government’s determination to appear tough on asylum seekers, there is a weary recognition in the refugee sector that sweeping change looks unlikely.

Campaigners would like the Home Office to be more sensitive in the way that age assessments are conducted on teenage asylum seekers when they arrive in the UK. Child refugee campaigners say the well-documented culture of disbelief within the Home Office means officials often launch age assessments with the premise “that this kid’s telling a lie, so we should work on the assumption that they’re probably an adult”. In December, the chief inspector of prisons expressed serious concerns about how staff at the Home Office reception facilities in Dover attempted to establish the age of new arrivals without professional interpreters. “We observed staff attempting to establish ages by use of hand signals,” he wrote.

Instead the Home Office is planning to take an even tougher line on age assessments of refugees. In December the home secretary, Priti Patel, said the nationality and borders bill would put an end to the “appalling abuse” of “grown adult men masquerading as children” to claim asylum, and said new funding would be given to enable checks on teeth, fusion of bones in the wrist and MRI imaging to “stop these abuses”.

Campaigners want child refugees to be housed away from hostels, and to get continued care when they turn 18 because, often, they are not yet equipped to live independent adult lives and the drop-off in support can be catastrophic. Better mental health provision should be given in recognition of the unimaginably difficult experiences they have endured during their journeys.

Benny Hunter, a campaigner for migrant and refugee rights, met Alex as a volunteer refugee worker in Calais, and tried for months to get him help. He remembers that some social workers were very impressive, but says: “The logic of the hostile environment is so entrenched that some social workers feel it is their job to protect overstretched services rather than protect children from harm.”

In a statement, the Home Office acknowledged that “unprecedented pressure” on asylum accommodation means that young refugees are being housed in hotels and hostels. It added: “We take the welfare of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children extremely seriously. These incidents are absolutely tragic, and our thoughts go out to all of their families.”

But it is at the grassroots level that some positive action has stemmed from the boys’ deaths. Dehab Woldu, who has worked with child refugees for 20 years, met Alex and Mulue through her work, and liked them both. Mulue was shy and reserved with her initially, but came to treat her as a mother figure, delighted to find someone he could talk to freely in Tigrinya (the main language spoken in Eritrea). “He was ambitious, he wanted to learn, he talked about his education. I felt he was someone who was going to be OK here,” she says. She was equally fond of Alex. “I’d say: ‘Be a good boy, concentrate on your education.’ And he’d say: ‘Yes, I’ll make you proud!’ He was a really pleasant, likable young boy.”

Benny Hunter and Dehab Woldu.Benny Hunter and Dehab Woldu. Photograph: Jill Mead/The Guardian

She remembers too the surge of frustration as she prepared food for one of the memorial services. “I thought: ‘What’s the point of doing the shopping for the wake if I can’t even help them before they die?’” she says. So she rallied the support of the older Eritrean community and, with Hunter, set up the Da’aro Youth project in south London. Every week, dozens of teenagers who have arrived from Eritrea (mostly boys, but a few girls) meet to eat a hot meal and play table football and three-a-side football.

“I was very distressed by the deaths. I couldn’t sleep. We wanted to draw a line, and say this cannot be allowed to happen again,” Woldu says. She and a team of adult colleagues and volunteers are present to help teenagers discuss their asylum problems and college applications. Sometimes they help teenagers who have become homeless, or whose ages have been disputed by the Home Office, or who need extra mental health support. “The three hours every week is very useful. It gives them confidence. They leave the club with a swagger they don’t have when they arrive.”

The group has been a huge success locally, but it’s clear that a national support programme is needed. Last September, Robel was horrified to discover another Eritrean teenager he had met, Ermias Brhane, 19, had killed himself, the fifth acquaintance to do so. “We’d played football together a few weeks earlier. I laughed when he turned up in jeans, and asked: ‘How are you going to play football dressed like that?’ That night I noticed he spent a long time sitting by himself, in deep thought. I remember an older man asking me if he was OK; I said I didn’t know. I should have asked him what the matter was. Maybe I could have helped,” he says, adding that the deaths make him feel sad and angry. “I don’t want to see this happen again.”

There was no family at the one-hour inquest held into Ermias’s death in December. “These kids are just dying and no one is asking why or even how many,” Hunter says. “It’s horrendous.”

In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email [email protected]. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at

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