Teenager in asylum backlog killed himself in Home Office hotel accommodation

Ismael Maolanzadeh, 19, died by suicide in Birmingham four months after arriving in the UK. Photo: Mustafa Maolanzadeh

Ismael 3
Ismael Maolanzadeh is one of 27 asylum claimants thought to have died by suicide since 2020

By Harriet Clugston and Aaron Walawalkar for Liberty Investigates, Kate Knowles for the Birmingham Dispatch and Cahal Milmo for i Newspaper.


The government is facing calls to investigate the death of a teenage asylum seeker who it has emerged took his own life in a Home Office hotel while under threat of removal to Rwanda.

Nineteen-year-old Ismael Maolanzadeh died by suicide at a hotel in Birmingham on 10 December. His body was discovered by his older brother, Mustafa, with whom he shared a room, who told reporters that Ismael’s mental state had deteriorated after he was left for months with no news on his asylum claim or support from hotel staff.

A group of MPs, lawyers and charities are now calling for an urgent investigation into the circumstances of his suicide, amid concerns it was swept “under the carpet” by a “superficial” coroner’s inquest which appears to have sidelined his family and failed to explore safeguarding issues, or whether his asylum status could have contributed to his despair.

The young man is one of 27 asylum claimants living in Home Office accommodation who are thought to have taken their own lives in the last four years, according to data obtained under information laws.

Lawyer Toufique Hossain, director of public law at Duncan Lewis, said the government’s Illegal Migration Act was to blame for Ismael and others like him being left in limbo, adding without it “there’s a strong likelihood his case would have progressed and he would not have killed himself”.

Ismael – a Kurdish-Iranian national who Mustafa says had fled possible reprisals after protesting against the Iranian government – arrived in the UK and claimed asylum in August, four months before he died.

His death was first uncovered in anonymised Home Office data provided to i news and Liberty Investigates in April under freedom of information laws. The Home Office refused to reveal his identity or place of death, but reporters were able to trace the incident to Birmingham.

Birmingham Coroner’s Court has since revealed it cancelled a hearing into Ismael’s death, which was then ruled a suicide via a written inquest only – a decision that dismayed Mustafa, who had wanted to attend, and which has been condemned by INQUEST, a charity specialising in state-related deaths.

Inquests are usually held in public, but rules introduced in 2022 allow coroners to conduct them in writing for “straightforward and uncontentious” deaths if they do not believe a hearing is in the public interest.

Deborah Coles, executive director of INQUEST, said she struggled to understand how a “very quick” written inquest could be justified for a vulnerable young person effectively under the state’s care, adding the coroner’s apparent failure to question the Home Office or look into safeguarding of asylum seekers had “left an accountability gap” that was “unlikely to be an isolated incident”.

Ismael Maolanzadeh arrived in Britain last August after fleeing his native Iran, where he had joined fellow Kurdish protesters in demonstrations against the Tehran government (Photo: Mustafa Maolanzadeh)

Liberty Investigates revealed earlier this year that suicides in asylum seeker accommodation have doubled over four years, with INQUEST calling for a broader investigation into how the deaths are handled and recorded.

A bundle of documents disclosed to reporters suggests the Birmingham coroner relied on just one witness statement from a housing officer responsible for welfare checks at Ismael’s hotel, alongside a brief police report from officers who attended the scene.

The coroner’s office was contacted, but said guidance prevented it from commenting on closed cases.

Mustafa says he was not able to contribute evidence or a tribute to his brother, despite initially being listed as a witness. He only realised the hearing had been cancelled after trying to check if an interpreter would be provided for him, and says he has not yet been sent the coroner’s findings. The official verdict makes no mention of Ismael’s asylum status.

“It is just too easy to sweep these deaths under the carpet with no meaningful engagement or no engagement at all from family and friends,” Coles said. “If this is the perennial approach to these deaths – to not have any questioning of the Home Office, that cannot be right […] There are fundamental questions to be asked of the Home Office about safeguarding and protection, particularly given their inherent vulnerabilities.”

While the housing officer said there was “no suggestion” Ismael was suffering from mental health problems or feeling suicidal, they admitted they “had not had any dealings” with the teenager in the four months he had been housed at the facility, run by private firm Serco on behalf of the Home Office.

“He got depressed. I was always trying to cheer him up saying: "It's not going to be like that forever. It's temporary’."

Mustafa Maolanzadeh

Mustafa, 23, paints a different picture, describing how his brother – a “joyful, happy boy”, who he was “inseparable” from – had sunk into depression since arriving in the UK and being placed in accommodation that felt more like a “prison”, unable to work or study.

“You spend your time, 24 hours, between four walls and there’s nothing you can do,” he said through a translator. “You don’t have money to go out. My brother was very, very active. He was always participating in the protests. He had a lot of energy. But once he got here it’s like all this thing has been taken away from him.

“He got depressed. I was always trying to cheer him up saying: “It’s not going to be like that forever. It’s temporary’.”

Mustafa is still yet to have a substantive asylum interview, nine months after lodging his claim, and remains housed at a different asylum hotel which he says constantly reminds him of his brother’s fate.

“Every time I open the door the picture of what happened it’s in front of my eyes. I can’t get it out of my head. So that’s why I don’t like hotels. I’m kind of traumatised,” he said.

“We ran away from death and execution, but we didn’t know that we would die here.

“If we at least had some information about what was going to happen to us … My brother might not have made that decision because we would have some hope.”

Mustafa has only been registered with a counsellor this month, as mental health outreach services to the hotel were cut in January this year due to lack of funding.

Documents obtained by Liberty Investigates under information laws suggest Ismael’s asylum application had effectively been paused at the time of his death while a Home Office team explored removing him from the UK.

His application is recorded as a “TCU case” – meaning it was with the Third Country Unit team responsible for deciding whether a person’s claim should not be processed in the UK under new inadmissibility rules for reasons including passing via a ’safe’ country or taking a dangerous means of transport.

Guidance suggests the team should secure an agreement with a safe third country to accept a person within six-months of their claim being registered – to avoid them being placed in a “limbo” position, with their claim going unprocessed. Rwanda is so far the only country with which the UK has an agreement to remove asylum seekers en masse, but removals were not possible at the time Ismael lodged his claim, following a Supreme Court ruling.

Zoe Bantleman, legal director of the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association, said the government’s inadmissibility policy had created “a large and ever-growing black hole of people left in permanent limbo”.

She said: “The vast majority are unremovable to countries with which they have no connection, but they are condemned to a life without hope of obtaining sanctuary and denied the opportunity to build a meaningful life from the fruits of their own work.”

Ismael, who had worked with his brother as a farmer, had dreams of becoming a mechanic in the UK. Photo: Mustafa Maolanzadeh

Yet a record of inquest certificate issued by Ismael’s coroner instead heavily implies his despair was solely attributable to a break up with his long-distance girlfriend. “He had no known mental health concerns but was understood to be upset by a recent relationship breakdown,” it reads, apparently relying on a police report stating Mustafa had said Ismael was upset following a phone call with his girlfriend days earlier.

This came as a shock to Mustafa, who said he was unaware there had been a relationship breakdown: “I was aware [that] sometimes they were having a fight. They were getting together the next day. He was [19] years old. So I took it as something normal.”

He added: “Since what happened – no one [has] bothered to explain or to give me a clue about what’s going on.”

On the day of his brother’s death Mustafa recalled being asked by police to confirm if his brother had a girlfriend. Officers then told him they’d take Ismael’s phone and check if they were exchanging messages, he added.

Mustafa found no physical suicide note from his brother and hopes there could be something for him on the phone, which is yet to be returned by police.

Five immigration lawyers and four MPs – Labour’s Olivia Blake, Nadia Whittome, Kim Johnson and Tahir Ali – have joined INQUEST and the Refugee Council in calling for an investigation into whether Ismael’s experience of the asylum system and the knowledge of the risk of being sent to Rwanda, may have contributed to his death.

Ali, the MP for Birmingham Hall Green, said the death was an avoidable tragedy due entirely to a broken asylum system. Four Birmingham City Councillors have also demanded an investigation.

Jed Pennington, a public law and human rights specialist at law firm Wilson’s, said the inquest appeared to have been “relatively superficial” and a fuller investigation was needed to understand if the Home Office needed to make any changes to how it deals with vulnerable young people in the asylum system.

A spokesman for Serco, the private firm that ran Ismael’s hotel, said it was not responsible for healthcare, and that its housing officers are not welfare support staff.

They added: “The death of this asylum seeker last year was a tragedy and our thoughts are with his family and friends. An inquest has been held to look into the circumstances surrounding his death.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “This was a tragic incident, and our thoughts are with everyone affected. We take the welfare of asylum seekers extremely seriously. At every stage in the process, our approach is to ensure that all needs and vulnerabilities are identified and considered, including those related to mental health and trauma.”

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Alternative versions of this article were published with the Birmingham Dispatch and i Newspaper.