Published: 18:31, 09 January 2022
| Updated: 15:40, 10 January 2022
A teenage asylum seeker took his own life after being wrongly judged to have turned 18, an inquest has heard.
Alex Tekle was one of four Eritrean friends to kill themselves within 16 months after arriving in England to start new lives and being faced with repeat obstacles.
An inquest heard Alex – who dreamed of being a professional cyclist, one of the east African country's national sports – had spiralled into alcohol abuse and depression less than a year after arriving in the back of a refrigerated lorry.
He had witnessed fellow asylum seekers die along the treacherous route to the UK and was grieving following the suicide of his friend Filmon Yemane.
While in Calais' infamous Jungle camp he began drinking and by the time he had been moved from Kent to Croydon he had developed an addiction fuelled by the stress of his application and the death of Filmon.
An inquest at Westminster Coroner's Court heard overworked social workers struggled to help Alex when he arrived in Croydon, with one having a case load of 25 young people.
His birth certificate was ignored and Kent County Council – which itself was struggling with a rising case load which would eventually see it threaten to sue the Home Office – sent him to live with adults, despite the fact he arrived alone and was just 17.
In December 2017, a few months after he turned 18 and less than a year after he arrived, Alex took his life in Mitcham, south London.
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Westminster assistant coroner Bernard Richmond, who returned a verdict of suicide, heard Alex was doing well before being wrongly moved and concluded Kent County Council “did not do anywhere as much as they might have done to keep Alex in their care," resulting in a missed opportunity to save him.
His social worker in Croydon was inexperienced when Alex needed someone able to cope with his "destructive spiral", he said.
Two of his key workers did go "above and beyond" for Alex but could not get him into an alcohol rehabilitation centre quickly enough.
He called Alex a "well-loved and loving son and brother" who "in his short life had to cope with a number of challenges which no 16- or 17-year-old should have to."
Benny Hunter met Alex while volunteering in Calais and helped him as he built a life in the UK.
In a statement posted after the verdict he said: "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."
Filmon had also just turned 18 when he died in November 2017; Osman Ahmed Nur, 19, did in May 2018 in Camden, north London; and Mulubrhane Medhane Kfleyosus, 19, was found dead in February 2019 in Milton Keynes.
Their suicides highlight clear issues with the support refugees receive when they arrive in Britain.
'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...'
Mr Hunter explained: "Alexander Tekle arrived in the UK as an unaccompanied asylum seeking child in December 2016 in the aftermath of the eviction of the Jungle camp in Calais. He was a 17-year-old child and had been witness to death and abuse on his journey from Eritrea and had himself been subject to police violence and neglect in France.
"As a result, upon his arrival on UK shores, he was highly traumatised and vulnerable. Less than a year after Alex arrived, he was found dead in his home. In his summing up and his conclusion of the inquest touching on Alex's death, the assistant coroner clearly said that Alex had been failed.
"Kent County Council social workers failed to act when presented with original baptism and birth certificates proving Alex was an underage minor - they removed him from their own care and sent him to live with adult asylum-seekers and under Home Office control.
"When the Home Office were presented with this evidence that they had a child in their accommodation who they were treating as an adult, they too failed to act.
"Alex absconded from the Home Office accommodation and turned to his young friends for support and began drinking heavily. He was extremely traumatised, outside of care, and receiving no support from the authorities.
"When he was later found to be a lone child outside of care, he was brought back under the care of social services in Croydon Council. But even then he continued to receive inadequate care and support. His addiction issues and mental health issues were not taken seriously. When crisis arose - such as self-harming and hospitalisation - they were not responded to.
"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.
"Blame for his problems with addiction was often placed entirely on him as a means of absolving the responsibility of those who could have safeguarded him. Alex was viewed by the council as being less in need of support due to his position as "no recourse to public funds" and because he was undocumented."
Mr Hunter said children's services' budgets had been "cut to the bone by the government" and that the government has "scapegoated asylum seekers and attacked unaccompanied children as frauds".
Last week, Home Secretary Priti Patel announced "scientific checks" to determine age were being brought in.
She said: "The practice of single grown adult men, masquerading as children claiming asylum is an appalling abuse of our system which we will end.
"By posing as children, these adult men go on to access children’s services and schools through deception and deceit; putting children and young adults in school and care at risk."
Bridget Chapman, from the Kent Refugee Action Network, said scientific methods to determine age are not possible.
Speaking after Alex's inquest she said: "Despite what Priti Patel and the Home Office say there are no definitive tests for deciding someone's age, especially in the years around puberty. Which is why the position of Kent Refugee Action Network is that support must always be based on the level of need and vulnerability. Any young person in care deserves to have that, and young asylum seekers are no different."
After Alex's death a JustGiving page raised more than £3,000 to repatriate his body.