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Darfuri teenager killed himself after being told – wrongly – of deportation

The prospect of certain torture in Sudan was too much for Abdullah Idris, but serious failings in Britain led to his death

Abdullah Hagar Idris had been counting the days to his release from prison so he could start a new life in Britain after fleeing persecution in his Darfur homeland.

But on Christmas Eve 2007 a prison officer handed the 18-year-old a document making it clear that the Home Office had decided he was to be kept behind bars pending deportation.

The news came as a cruel shock to the young man who could not bear the thought of returning to Sudan where he knew he would be hunted down and murdered by the feared Arab militia.

When prison officers opened his cell door on Christmas Day they found Abdullah had used his own sheets to hang himself.

This week a coroner heard how Abdullah had a poor comprehension of English and could not properly understand the meaning of the Home Office documents.

If he had been able to speak to a solicitor he would have realised Britain had stopped sending immigrants back to Darfur because of violence and that his claim for asylum had a real prospect of success.

A jury hearing evidence at Chelmsford Coroner's Court in Essex on Tuesday returned a verdict highlighting serious failings by HMP Chelmsford and Essex Social Services which caused or contributed to the death. The jury found the failure of HMP Chelmsford to establish a proper system for the delivery of deportation documents to prisoners had contributed to his death. They also criticised the failure by Essex Social Services to provide proper care and support to him after his 18th birthday.

Abdullah, also known as Joker, had been serving a 12-month jail term for affray and was due to be released in the next few days but a letter was delivered to him saying that he would be deported to Sudan at the end of his sentence. Mr Khalid Toka, Mr Idris' cousin who grew up with him, said: "Abdullah came to this country, as I did, fleeing the genocide of our people, seeking a place of safety. It is tragic that he took his life whilst in prison abandoned by those who could have cared for him and explained his rights."

Harriet Wistrich, solicitor for the family, said: "The evidence we uncovered was that this young and clearly very vulnerable person was abandoned by all those who could and should have cared for him. It is crucial that lessons are learned so that this appalling tragedy is never repeated."

Helen Shaw, co-director of the legal campaign group Inquest, said: "The failure of Essex Social Services to comply with the law and to provide Mr Idris with coordinated care and support is deeply alarming. Such a vulnerable young man should not have been left without a personal advisor, alone and afraid in prison."

Abdullah arrived in the UK in 2006 after leaving his small village Muhajeria in south Darfur, 30 miles from the provincial capital Nyala. Alone in the UK, Abdullah was eventually referred to Essex Social Services, who provided him with accommodation.

Although he claimed to be 15, social services decided he was 17, and gave him a date of birth of 3 March, 1989. Mr Idris began to attend Harlow College but was convicted for affray in July 2007 and given a prison sentence. In the last few months before his death Abdullah had swapped his Muslim name for that of Joker and had converted to Christianity. A Prisons and Probation Ombudsman report heard evidence that he had been bullied and violently assaulted by Muslim prisoners for his conversion.

Sophie McCann, director of Waging Peace, a charity that campaigns against the violence in Darfur, said: "What makes his story really heartbreaking is that contrary to the Home Office's automated letter, he would in all likelihood have been able to appeal against the deportation, but no one helped him to understand his situation.

"The fear of being sent back to a country where he had escaped genocide is undoubtedly what led to his death. Joker was let down by the institutions that are meant to safeguard young, vulnerable people in difficult situations. It is especially poignant that by now, Joker would have been eligible for refugee status to live a safe life in the UK."

A spokesman for the Prison Service said a "number of refinements" had been made to the process of issuing deportation notices to foreign national visitors following Mr Idris's death.

A strong legal case

In December 2007, when Abdullah Idris was awaiting release from Chelmsford Prison, the Home Office said it was not safe to return non-Arab Darfuris to the region. Instead ministers operated a policy of returning asylum-seekers from Darfur to the capital Khartoum.

Given Abdullah's family involvement in opposing the Government-backed militias, his lawyers would have advised him that he would have every chance of mounting a successful challenge to any decision to deport him. In November last year the Labour Government finally agreed to grant refugee status to all non-Arab Darfuris in the UK after growing evidence that they faced arrest, torture and death in Sudan.

If Abdullah was still alive, he would undoudtedly be granted asylum.

Robert Verkaik