‘I knew Mia was in trouble’: Mum’s incredible fight for justice
It would have been the easiest thing to do. To slip quietly away to privately grieve the traumatic news of her only child's death. But Rosie Ayliffe was never going to do that. Ayliffe, mother of 20-year-old English backpacker Mia Ayliffe-Chung - who was fatally stabbed in a horrific attack at a backpackers' hostel at Home Hill in 2016 - instead took a stand.
She asked questions of a system and found flaws. She stood up and she spoke out, perhaps stubbornly, and propelled herself into an unexpected and very public role of campaigner against backpacker exploitation in Australia, the Lucky Country.
Mia died in a frenzied knife attack in the hostel, south east of Townsville, at the hands of 29-year-old French national Smail Ayad, from Marseille, France, who was later diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.
Ayad also killed fellow British backpacker Tom Jackson, who was trying to save Mia's life.
All three were in Australia on working holiday visas, undertaking 88 days of farm work that is required to remain in Australia for a second year on a 417 visa.
Because Ayad had been heard to shout "Allahu Akbar" as he killed Mia, the incident was treated as a possible terrorist attack and received widespread international media attention.
A terrorist link, however, was ruled out in the early stages of the police investigation.
Then US President Donald Trump even became involved, listing the case as "fake news'', claiming it had in fact been a terrorist incident.
Ayliffe punched back with an open letter to Trump that discounted the "myth'' of connection between Mia's death and fundamentalism. Her comments received international attention and an overwhelming 1.2 million impressions on Twitter in reaction.
Using the publicity surrounding her daughter's death, Ayliffe, a former teacher, travel writer and freelance writer, thought she "might get two or three months out of it'' to highlight issues she found were a common thread in backpacker farm work.
She spoke out loudly (including an open letter to then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull) on a "culture of exploitation'' and unscrupulous practices, including underpayment or non-payment of wages, unlawful wage deductions, sexual harassment, withholding passports, no health and safety training, poor accommodation, limited phone and internet coverage and unmonitored employers.
Backpackers, under pressure to complete their 88 days, could essentially be pitted against each other in competition to work, generating "an aggressive and overheated atmosphere''.
Ayliffe says she believes these are factors that contributed to the "febrile'' environment in which the fatal stabbings of Mia and Jackson took place.
Almost five years after the incident that up-ended her world, Ayliffe has written a book, titled Far From Home.
Speaking from her home in Derbyshire, England, the 57-year-old says she never envisioned taking on a public profile but did so to make a difference and to honour her daughter's name.
"It felt like a compulsion - like that was the road I had to travel to deal with my grief and to honour Mia. I did it for Mia,'' Ayliffe says.
"Mia and I had a very strong, loving bond. Being a single parent of an only child makes an incredible bond, and to lose that is like losing the world.'' (Ayliffe and her then-husband Howard separated the day before Mia's third birthday.)
Ayliffe says she originally intended to write a fictional novel based on the 88 days of required farm work to "highlight the issues''.
However, Australian publishers wanted her non-fictional account of the whole story, including details of her own background, told by her, from the beginning.
Ayliffe says she "really didn't want to do it'' but was enticed by the big publicity machine of a major publishing house to further shine a light on issues faced by backpackers working in
Australia. "I was told I needed to add in more of my backstory to make me more relatable … so that was dragged out of me," she says.
"I really didn't intend on sharing any of that.
"It was re-traumatising. But at the same time, it was also therapeutic. Revisiting the pain means that, in the end, you can actually come through a better person. Now that it is done, I do feel calm about the book. I feel like I've done my bit. I've said what I need to say.''
'MIA WAS PERFECT'
After three years of trying for a baby, and suffering a miscarriage, Ayliffe gave birth to Mia Mishka Annie Josephine Ayliffe-Chung, of English, Jamaican and Chinese heritage, in South London on October 7, 1995.
She was the first grandchild for Ayliffe's family and, from day one, her mother confesses she was "smitten''.
"If I'm perfectly honest, I did think about having a second child and then I thought, 'They are never going to measure up','' Ayliffe says through tears.
"Mia was perfect. I thought 'I can't love anyone as much'. She was enough.''
Mia grew up travelling with her mother, who wrote travel guides, including the Rough Guide to Turkey. Ayliffe took Mia to Turkey when she was just 10 months old and, later, to other research destinations in Europe.
Mia also made road trips abroad with her father, who was working as a roadie for bands travelling all over Europe, visiting France, the Netherlands, Greece and Italy.
It was from these early experiences that Mia saw travelling as the "ultimate adventure'', and she started working evenings and weekends in cafes and bars, saving money for her adventures.
After Mia finished high school, she completed a childcare course and began planning a year-long trip, taking in Turkey, Morocco, India, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Australia.
While Mia was away, Ayliffe says she became "the ultimate Facebook stalker'', watching for Mia's every post and messaging her most days.
After five months exploring Asia, Mia, travelling alone, arrived in Sydney, on January 13, 2016. She moved to the Gold Coast and worked in the canteen at Bond University, and then at a Surfers Paradise nightclub with what Ayliffe describes as the "dubious'' name of The Bedroom Lounge Bar.
Despite Ayliffe's protestations, Mia told her mother to "calm down'', saying her job was "serving tables, flirting with the customers and persuading them to stick around and drink more''. Mia said she felt safe working there because it was well managed.
Young travellers with a working holiday visa from about 20 countries are eligible to remain in Australia for a second year if they complete 88 days of work in specified areas, such as plant and animal cultivation, fishing, mining and construction in regional Australia. Farm work - harvesting and packing fruit and vegetable crops - is a popular option.
Four months into her time on the Gold Coast, Ayliffe says Mia knew she had to complete 88 days of farm work if she wanted to stay for a second year.
She arrived at Shelley's Backpackers at Home Hill, 100km southeast of Townsville, on August 16, 2016 with a friend she met on the Gold Coast: UK traveller Chris Bowers. They were placed sharing a room with Ayad.
One of Mia's first jobs was to pick up stones and rocks in a sugarcane field, and she posted on Facebook about seeing spiders and a dead snake in the field.
She was also worried, Ayliffe says, about competing against other backpackers for work, with many travellers having only limited time to complete their 88 days of work.
Ayliffe says she sensed Mia wasn't happy in the hostel, picking up on her "initial unease and growing dislike of the place''.
She writes: "I knew Mia was in trouble, but I had no real idea of what the threat actually was. Less than 12 hours later she was dead.''
On August 23, Ayad's horrific attack on Mia and Tom Jackson was captured on CCTV in a scene of "chaos, confusion and fear''.
In June 2020, Coroner Nerida Wilson handed down her findings, reporting the "shocking and unforeseen deaths occurred at the hands of a psychotic individual under the influence of cannabis''.
Distressingly, at 11.06pm, CCTV shows Ayad entering the room he shared with Mia. He re-emerges at 11.07pm holding a knife to Mia's neck on the hostel's balcony.
He then launches into a frenzied 10-second attack, using the knife against Mia's upper body as she tries to protect herself on the ground.
The hostel's night manager sustains a knife wound to his right leg in an attempt to protect Mia, who is able to stand up and run away, locking herself in a bathroom cubicle.
Ayad then launches himself headfirst off the balcony, with his arms extended "as if he was attempting to fly'', landing on his back.
Seemingly unaware of the attack, Jackson initially tries to assist Ayad on the ground, then goes to help Mia in the bathroom when he is alerted to her injuries.
However, minutes later, Ayad kicks the bathroom door open and attacks Jackson with the knife, inflicting multiple serious wounds.
Mia died at 11.35pm at the scene, the fatal injury a stab wound to her heart.
Jackson was transferred to Townsville Hospital but was pronounced dead on August 29. His official cause of death was a stab wound to the brain.
Ayad was charged with 17 criminal charges, including two of murder.
He had no criminal history.
During his admission to a high-security inpatient unit at a Brisbane hospital, he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, a major depressive episode and cannabis dependence.
In April 2018, the Mental Health Court determined him of unsound mind at the time of the offences and all criminal charges against him were discontinued.
He remains an inpatient at the Brisbane high-security inpatient unit.
It is unclear when his planned repatriation to France will occur.
CAMPAIGN FOR CHANGE
At first, Ayliffe didn't make any connection between Australia's visa requirements and her daughter's death.
But after talking with other backpackers, researching, joining various online Australian backpacker groups and taking in what was being said about the visa program, she knew she had a role in campaigning for change.
"You can't blame the system for what happened to Mia … but if you put a lot of young people into a situation where they are in competition with each other for work, you are creating a bit of a powder keg,'' Ayliffe says.
"And things can happen that might not have happened otherwise.
Then add into that, a criminal element in these very remote places.
"The federal government issues the second visa but they have little to do with the program itself.
"The young people must find the work independently and try to distinguish between genuine employers and the many charlatans, gangmasters and downright abusers who are attracted by their youth, vulnerability and naivety.
"There is no formal registration for the 417 visa holders undertaking agricultural work, so nobody knows who or where they are, how they are being served by the system or how many there are.
"It is a scheme dreamt up to plug a gap in the workforce of the country's agricultural industry.
"Backpacker and migrant workers are essential to Australia, and that's been highlighted with COVID, with crops not being picked and being left to rot in the field."
Ayliffe campaigned for better regulation of the 88 days, calling for a register of inspected workplaces, registration of backpackers on the scheme, government-led training about what to expect in an Australian workplace and how to deal with particularly Australian issues, such as intense heat and wildlife.
In November 2018, Ayliffe married partner Stewart Cormack.
They honeymooned in Thailand and arrived back in the UK in December to the news that Australia now had a Modern Slavery Act, intended to tackle crimes such as sexual slavery, orphan trafficking, debt bondage, forced labour, forced marriage and servitude.
Ayliffe writes that she was proud to have played a part and that the "worst aspects of the 88 days program were exposed for what they are: effectively state-sponsored modern slavery for which Australia needs to be held accountable''.
While she counts the Act as "a significant moment'', she still believes there needs to be an enforcement agency to provide a one-stop reporting system for all victims of exploitation.
"All the legislation can be in place but it's whether it is ever used. That's the issue - it's enforcement of law,'' she says.
Ayliffe would ultimately like to see a Royal Commission into the issue but for now, she sees the Modern Slavery Act as a part of Jackson and Mia's legacy.
"It means my daughter, and the brave man who tried to save her life, did not die in vain.''
'MIA WOULD BE PROUD'
To Ayliffe, Mia will always be approaching her21st birthday. She will be "on a beach, playing games with her friends, dancing and laughing with babies and toddlers in the sunshine, healthy and strong, and looking her head-turning, devastatingly beautiful self''.
"Mia had a captivating aura: she was never happier than when she had other people around her - children and adults - and she often stole the limelight with her good humour, sense of fun and beautiful smile,'' she writes.
"Her love of life and lively imagination made her fun to be around.
"I don't pity Mia unless I dwell on the manner of her death and a lifetime unlived.
"Whenever grief overwhelmed me, it was myself I pitied, and I spent hours doing just that.''
The death of Mia has had profound effects on Ayliffe, describing the loss of her daughter as "a long ache''.
She says she has been "literally crippled by grief'' and that the truth of what happened was of such "earth-shattering magnitude'' that she simply couldn't accept it.
Ayliffe has also suffered the effects of PTSD, manifesting in joint pain, exhaustion and tension. She never returned to her teaching job.
Ayliffe says she needed to transform that grief into "something else''.
"I suppose people saw my mission as one of transforming grief into bravery, and righting wrongs. I was told it would be a lifetime's work, and that I was threatening the basis of the Australian economy, and all the authorities would want was for me to go away,'' she writes.
"But I wasn't brave or stupid, remarkable or deluded. I just didn't give a damn anymore, and that made me untouchable.''
Ayliffe says she is also on a "journey of forgiveness'' towards the man who stole so much from her.
"If I harbour hatred and anger towards him (Ayad), that is not going to touch him. That is going to hurt me; that's going to destroy me,'' she says.
"I'm not prepared for him to take my life as well as my daughter's.
"I'm not going to let that happen.''
But after all the years of fighting, researching and advocating, and now after writing her book, it is time, Ayliffe says, to put this chapter of her life to bed.
"I think 'tenacious' is a nice way of describing me. I'm bloody minded. I'll have a go, give it my best shot,'' she says.
"To my mind, now, I think I've reached a point where I've done my bit.
"I feel it's time for me to step back. I'm halfway across the globe, and this is actually an Australian problem.
"I am proud of what I've achieved and I think Mia would be proud, too.
"Actually, she'd be a bit embarrassed that her mum has gone on a rampage across half the world. So she'd be mortified, but also proud.
"And I am proud to have been her mother, and I will hold her in my heart until I die.''
Originally published as 'I knew Mia was in trouble': Mum's incredible fight for justice