Mumtaz Khan’s journey to Britain began in 2009 when he fled Afghanistan, leaving his wife and two young children, in the hope that he would one day see them again. From there it took him seven years to reach the UK, most of which was spent in the Calais Jungle, where he once said the “terrible” conditions caused his mental health to deteriorate. He finally made it to the UK in 2016, only to spend four years fighting against being sent back to his home country, where he feared he would be killed by the Taliban.
On 23 June this year, Mumtaz, 38, told his solicitor that the stress over his asylum refusal meant he had lost his appetite. His head was spinning. Khalid Khashy, of Hoole and Co Solicitors in Bristol, reassured Mumtaz, his new client, advising him to eat something and contact his doctor.
Four days later, Mumtaz’s body was found by members of the public outside the flat of a friend he had been staying with. Avon and Somerset Police were called to the scene just before 10pm; his death is not being treated as suspicious. An inquest into the death is due to begin next week.
Khalid, who had started gathering medical records and witness statements for his new client’s asylum case, says he was “devastated” by the news of Mumtaz’s death. “He knew that he faced removal to Afghanistan, and he was worried the Home Office was going to evict him from his accommodation. It’s a very sad story.”
Mumtaz had been living in asylum accommodation in Sunderland, but travelled to Bristol to meet Khalid in a bid to launch another appeal against another negative decision on his asylum case. While there, he stayed with a friend, who is said to have left the house on the night of 27 June to get Mumtaz some food after realising he hadn’t eaten anything all day. He returned to find his friend’s body.
The Afghan national, who was an English teacher in his home country, lost his long-fought battle in the asylum tribunals in February. He had received the first refusal in September 2018 – nearly two years after submitting his initial claim, despite the government’s target time of six months – and went on to unsuccessfully appeal the decision twice, in a desperate bid to convince the Home Office that he would be in danger if he were to return home. At one point, in May 2019, he represented himself in court because he could not get a solicitor, and successfully convinced the judge that he should be allowed to appeal because there had been an error of law in the previous court decision. Ultimately, though, the final decision was made to refuse him asylum.
On 15 May this year, Katherine Lowe, session coordinator at the Comfrey Project, a charity in Tyneside that helps refugees and asylum seekers take part in gardening, dropped off some items for Mumtaz at his address. She says he had been “visibly distressed” after receiving another rejection letter from the Home Office.
“When I asked him if he was OK, he broke down in tears outside his house door,” Katherine recalls. “He said, ‘I got a letter from Home Office. They tell me no again. I don’t know what to do. What can I do? I can’t go back to Afghanistan.’ He was clearly very afraid of going back. The impact of this news regarding his Home Office appeal was devastating and the change in comparison to how positive he had been when things were more hopeful was blatantly clear. It was sad to see the change in his emotional state.”
Mumtaz, who as an asylum seeker was not allowed to work, had spent a lot of time volunteering with the charity on their allotment sites, where he became a keen gardener, using this activity as a means of helping to manage his severe depression. Eleni Venaki, director of the Comfrey Project, says he would attend the sites several times a week and “dig all day”.
“For Mumtaz, gardening was like a therapy,” says Eleni. “He was very hardworking and he liked to be useful. He didn’t like to sit down. If he said he would help with something, you could rely on him. He’d welcome people at the events we held for the community and take groups around the garden. He had a golden heart. He hated the fact that he couldn’t work. He was feeling useless and that was really bothering him.”
Eleni says Mumtaz would sometimes open up to her about missing his children, now aged 15 and 13, whom he hadn’t seen for more than a decade. “He would come into my office and we’d talk a lot. Sometimes he was quite tearful,” she remembers. “He wanted to see his kids. He’d say he was really missing them, and that he felt guilty because he wasn’t able to send them money.”
Throughout his time in the UK, those who knew Mumtaz say his mental health problems were clear. In June 2017, eight months after submitting his asylum claim, his consultant psychiatrist requested that the Home Office fast-track his application, on the grounds that he was suffering from major depression, and that his condition could be improved were he able to work. “His poor attention remains, along with difficulty with sleep due to persistent agitation. He remains relatively hopeless, and feels a burden on all our services,” the letter read. Despite this, he waited another 15 months for his asylum decision.
The Home Office and the courts acknowledged that Mumtaz was mentally unwell, but it was repeatedly argued that although he was ill, his condition could be controlled with medication, and there was nothing to show that medication would not be available in Afghanistan.
Khalid disputes this conclusion: “What they didn’t consider was whether, while the medication could be effective in the safety of the UK with all the support around him and all the charities helping him, if you send him to a dangerous place like Afghanistan, would he be safe and would the medication be effective?”
A Home Office spokesperson said it would be inappropriate to comment further before all of the facts of Mumtaz’s death have been established at inquest, but added: “Our thoughts are with this individual’s family and friends.
“The Home Office continues to work closely with its service providers to ensure our asylum system is providing the necessary support to those seeking protection. Their health and wellbeing has and always will be the priority, and we will continue to provide support to those that need it.”
Sandra Watt, project development worker at Friends of the Drop In, a small charity supporting asylum seekers and refugees in Sunderland, who had known Mumtaz for more than three years, says it was evident “right from the beginning” that he had mental health problems, and that “every time he got another refusal from the Home Office, it made his condition slightly worse”.
Despite the suffering he endured with his mental health, she says, Mumtaz was a generous and giving person. As a multi-linguist, he was always on hand to assist with translating for people who could not communicate in English. Months before his death, he agreed to take in a newly arrived young Afghan man after the charity’s drop-in closed, to help him settle into life in Britain.
“He looked after him the whole time during lockdown,” says Sandra. “He took part in community projects, he helped with interpreting, all sorts of things, even though he was unwell himself. He was compassionate. That’s the irony. He was able to extend compassion to others, and yet he didn’t receive it here from the authorities.”
His friends echo the sentiment that, despite suffering with mental health problems himself, he was generous and compassionate towards others. Bahar Gul, a friend living in a different city, says he would send Mumtaz official Home Office letters that he would translate for him over the phone, and describes him as “bright, honest and great company to be with”.
Another friend, Janatgul Easakhil, describes how Mumtaz once travelled from Sunderland to the city where he lives when he heard that his uncle in Afghanistan had died. Sawab, a friend in Bristol, meanwhile tells how Mumtaz would bring chocolate and sweets to hand out to children after Eid prayers in the mosque, while desperately missing his own children.
Sandra Watt last spoke to Mumtaz on 18 June, when he had phoned her to ask whether the charity could help him with his train fare to see the solicitor in Bristol. She says he didn’t appear to be in crisis at that point, and that in recent months he had seemed more stable than before.
“What a waste of a life. I feel really frustrated about not being able to do anything. I feel quite powerless.
“No matter how much you do to try help, however much assistance or talking therapy they get, if you can’t change any of the external circumstances that are contributing to the deterioration of a person’s mental health, it’s very difficult to assist that person in getting better,” she says. “Even if the solicitor was telling him he had a good case for a fresh claim, you can see why people are pushed to the edge. And that’s what happened to Mumtaz.”
If you are experiencing feelings of distress and isolation, or are struggling to cope, The Samaritans offers support; you can speak to someone for free over the phone, in confidence, on 116 123 (UK and ROI), email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit the Samaritans website to find details of your nearest branch
For services local to you, the national mental health database – Hub of Hope – allows you to enter your postcode to search for organisations and charities who offer mental health advice and support in your area