'Goodbye, I love you, be careful': The haunting last words of Mia's mother as she left for gap year that saw her killed 'by a backpacker'

Mia Ayliffe-Chung was murdered in a remote Australian backpacker hostel in August 2016. Photo / Supplied
Mia Ayliffe-Chung was murdered in a remote Australian backpacker hostel in August 2016. Photo / Supplied

Rosie Ayliffe tries to avoid the agonising "what-ifs" as she discusses the life and death of her beautiful daughter Mia, who was murdered a few weeks before her 21st birthday.

"You can't have regrets," she says.

"I feel that very strongly, because that's what eats you up and exacerbates the grief."

And there has been no shortage of grief on both sides of the world in the two months since Mia was stabbed to death by a crazed killer in a remote Australian backpackers' hostel - along with another Briton, Tom Jackson, 30, who courageously tried to save her.

Rosie recalls how, when she waved Mia goodbye more than a year ago as she set off on her dream trip from their local railway station in Derbyshire's Peak District, she hugged her daughter and said simply: "Goodbye, I love you.

Be careful."

"I added, 'Don't forget I love you all around the world and back again'. It was what I used to say to her as a little girl. And we both tried to laugh through our tears.

"Obviously I was full of anxiety for her. I would rather she'd gone Inter-Railing around Europe for six weeks than going to the other side of the world, but what could I say?

"I wanted her to live her dream. She'd wanted to do this for so long."

It is a sentiment surely shared by every parent who has nervously watched their child set off on a gap-year adventure.

But Rosie's worst fears were appallingly realised when two "devastated" police officers arrived at her Derbyshire home one evening in August.

As a mother, she instinctively understood something terrible had happened, even though hard facts were initially difficult to come by.

"The police knew very little apart from the fact that Mia was 'fatally injured'," says Rosie.

"It was only when I phoned the consulate that I found out she had been attacked and killed."

As details of the brutal assault began to emerge, the full horror became apparent; Mia had been dragged from her bed and stabbed by another backpacker, Frenchman Smail Ayad, 29.

The powerfully built former cage fighter had reportedly made threats weeks before her arrival in the hostel to massacre his fellow travellers.

But it is believed he targeted lively, attractive Mia as he developed an obsession with her after she was placed in a four-berth mixed sex dormitory alongside him.

After repeatedly stabbing Mia, he attacked a hostel worker then jumped from a balcony and chased and killed a pet dog. Having re-entered the hostel, he attacked and fatally wounded Jackson, who had been trying to help Mia.

Although he is Muslim and shouted "Allahu Akbar" during his bloody killing spree, police have found no evidence Ayad was radicalised.

Rosie says: "I was told by the police that Mia was unconscious after the first blow. But my brain refuses to believe that, and instead it plays and replays that ugly scene for me."

Rosie struggled for days to believe that her bubbly, loquacious daughter had been taken from her.

In the week after Mia's death, she wrote on her blog: "The problem is that I haven't seen Mia for nearly a year, and so in my head she's still alive, well and living in Australia, cracking jokes and setting up a stall to sell rocks she'd picked up as part of her farm work."

But now Rosie, 53, an English teacher, is trying to channel her pain into something more constructive.

She has launched a campaign to highlight the exploitation and horrendous conditions endured by backpackers such as Mia, which she is convinced were a contributory factor in her daughter's murder.

Rosie explains that young travellers who want to extend their one-year working holiday visa in Australia are obliged to carry out 88 days of work on farms or in construction, carrying out unpopular, often extremely arduous labour.

To accommodate them, a network of grim hostels has sprung up - such as the one where Mia died in Home Hill, Queensland - which act as employment agencies as well as offering bed and board in sparse dormitories.

The flow of work day by day is often sporadic and backpackers are at the mercy of sometimes exploitative hostel owners and employers.

"It's modern-day slavery," says Rosie.

"The work is back-breaking. Sometimes the hostel owner takes passports away from the young people if they owe them money for rent.

"There's quite a bit of sexual harassment too in some places. No one wants to blow the whistle, they all just want their visas.

"Mia turned down one job on a strawberry farm because they were only employing girls, which set off alarm bells. In the hostels there's a tense, febrile atmosphere, with drink and drugs."

Rosie hopes that by speaking out, she can spare other parents the torment she is going through.

Mia's exotic background meant she was born to travel.

Born in London in 1995, her father Howard Chung-Yap, a lorry driver, is of Jamaican-Chinese extraction.

Rosie says: "Mia had genes from three different continents - you don't get much more ethnically mixed than that. Her father was a roadie in the music business. He used to take her on trips all over Europe. She would see the different countries from the cab of a truck.

"So, of course, Mia grew up wanting to travel, and I didn't discourage her in any way. I took her to Istanbul when she was a baby when I helped to write the Rough Guide To Turkey."

Her parents split when Mia was three and she and her mother moved to Derbyshire.

Although Mia did well at school, gaining nine GCSEs, she left after AS-levels and embarked on a childcare course. But the grand trip was always in the back of her mind, and after saving money - along with a compensation payout from a car accident which very nearly killed her when she was 12 - she set off in September, 2015.

"I drummed into her the importance of dressing and behaving appropriately in every country she went to," says her mother.

"I was worried, of course, but in some ways travelling as a single woman can be safer than two girls, as people can be more protective towards you."

Mia's route, travelling by plane, took her to Morocco, Turkey, India, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia.

Thanks to Facebook, she and her mother had regular online chats, and Mia's profile is festooned with photos of her travels.

Her mother says: "It's ironic that Mia has been labelled as a backpacker because she hated the backpack. If she could have done the whole trip with a wheeled suitcase, with her heels and her nails all done, then she would have."

By August, Mia was in Brisbane and her thoughts had turned to staying in Australia for a second year.

Mia decided, with a British friend, Chris Porter, to follow the thousands of other backpackers on the three-month long "specified work' scheme". They went to Home Hill - far from the bright lights of the city.

Rosie Ayliffe with her daughter Mia Ayliffe-Chung. Photo / Supplied
Rosie Ayliffe with her daughter Mia Ayliffe-Chung. Photo / Supplied

After a few days picking up rocks and stones in a sugar cane field to protect farming machinery, Mia revealed her poor impression of the work and accommodation. In a Facebook post, she declared: "Day 4 done. Just 85 left! Skills achieved; the ability to tell the difference between a rock and a clump of mud and throwing stones really far. The sun is too hot. Stupid Australia."

She described the hostel to her mother in another Facebook message as "like a prison" and said she was worried her first visa might run out before she was able to complete the requisite 88 days of work.

Back home, Rosie worried that Mia had been given no training about what to do if she encountered one of the many venomous snakes found in Queensland. She shared her daughter's concerns about not completing the three months of work in time.

Then on August 23, police arrived at Rosie's door to break the news every parent dreads.

A week later, Rosie set off for Australia surrounded by her family to be reunited with her daughter in the most unbearable circumstances after a gruelling 10,000-mile journey.
As she blogged from the flight: 'The tears are a relief, and I don't really care that my face is swollen like a swollen thing.

"What's harder is that the least suggestion of pain and violence on the film I'm trying to watch brings horrific visions of Mia's final moments into my head."

She arrived in Australia to the further devastating news that Mr Jackson has died from his injuries.

"The police in Brisbane had been well briefed and at first refused to answer when I asked, "How's Tom Jackson?" That job was left to a consular liaison," she recalls.

"None of us took the news well. It was devastating to hear that this heroic man had died trying to save Mia's life and I dissolved again into the hopeless sobbing that had plagued me for most of the flight.

"And incredibly, the 6ft 5in senior police officer who gave us a thorough account of Mia's last moments broke down himself and wept.

"Having investigated every aspect of Mia's private possessions, his tributes to Mia were probably the most heartfelt I'd heard. It was the most comforting moment of this sorry nightmare and I will never forget it."

Rosie had initially opted not to see Mia's body at the morgue, but a relative encouraged her, hoping it would provide closure.

"It provided me with no closure whatsoever; it was like looking at a waxwork doll," she says.

"We'd chosen something nice for her to wear and she looked really beautiful, like sleeping beauty or something. But when I lifted the gauze you could see mottling under the make-up and how traumatised her body was.

"I'm glad I did it because I don't want to think that she died as some kind of sleeping princess, because she died in the way she did and it was completely horrific."

Fighting back tears, she adds: "I left there feeling empty and then we headed for the beach, and I went down to the sea and saw her there - I saw her on the beach in a kind of vision almost - just running along the beach.

"I suppose it was all the videos and images I'd seen of her just came back to me at that moment, and I had a real sense of how happy she'd been there.

"Mia will always be approaching her 21st birthday, on a beach, playing silly 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. So I don't pity Mia - unless I dwell on the manner of her death."

Rosie says: "I was told by the police that Ayad had cannabis in his system. Cannabis and other drugs were rife at the time in the Home Hill hostel, to my knowledge.

"Maybe if this guy started to drink excessively and use skunk [an extremely potent type of cannabis]. If that's what it was, it could have sparked a psychotic episode? Who can tell?"

Some of those questions may be answered when Ayad is dealt with in court, charged with two murders and an attempted murder.

Rosie launched her campaign to improve the lot of backpackers partly because she feels it is what Mia would have wanted. 'I have this sense that she is with me, not as a physical presence, but spiritually.

"I am guided by her and she is my moral compass.

"Closure for me would be to see this campaign get off the ground. I hope that I can get the message out to other young people and their parents that there are dangers out there which they may not have anticipated."

Rosie says: "Through this campaign we could save lives. Mia is not the first person to die in that situation - how many girls have been sexually harassed on the farms, leaving life-long scars?"

Paul Broadbent, chief executive of the UK-based Gangmasters Licensing Authority, has met Rosie and backs the campaign. He says: "Rosie's campaigning is courageous and admirable and, as an organisation that exists to prevent the exploitation of vulnerable workers, we fully support her endeavours."

Since Mia's death, Rosie has been blogging as a way to vent her feelings about all that has happened. One poignant line from the blog, addressed to Mia's friends, is an eloquent testimony to her daughter's spirit. She writes: "Mia can't dance any more, or have babies, or travel, or fulfil her ambitions. You have to dance for her now."

- Daily Mail

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