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Rise in refugee deaths in Balkan region where UK provides training to border forces

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When he saw the photo of his deceased son, Hussam Adin Bibars collapsed to the ground. After three weeks of searching, he had found it – and his worst fears had come true.

The image, given to him by a Bulgarian police officer, showed Majd Addin Bibars, 27, lying pale and lifeless on a patch of grass. “I fell when I saw him,” remembers Mr. Bibars, 53 years old. “I recognized him immediately… He was my son.”

The Syrian father of five, who refugee and lives in Denmark, wanted to see Majd’s body for himself – but was told it had already been buried in an unmarked grave in a cemetery several miles away, four days after its discovery.

Majd was crossing Bulgaria from Türkiye hoping to reach Germany, where he would be closer to his parents and where he hoped to later bring his pregnant wife and young daughter, Hanaa, to join him.

He was with a group of around 20 others who were embarking on the same dangerous journey – but he stopped responding to texts and calls in late September. The smuggler who led the group informed Mr. Bibars that Majd had fallen ill and the group had left him, the grieving father said.

After 22 days of searching for Majd from afar, Mr. Bibars decided to spend what little money he had to travel to Bulgaria.

Majd’s father, Hussam Addin Bibars, went looking for his son after he stopped responding to messages while traveling in Europe (Photo: ARD Studio Wien)

After speaking with a staff member at a hospital near the Turkish border – with the help of a translator – he was directed to the local police station, where he was shown the photo of Majd. She was told her son had died of thirst, exhaustion and cold – and had been buried.

“We hear that Europe is the country of freedom, democracy and human rights. Where are the human rights if I can’t see my son before his funeral? asks Mr. Bibars. “All I saw was a grave, photos and his phone. That’s all I have of him.

Majd was one of many people who died while traveling through the Balkans to reach Western Europe – and whose families are forced to undergo a painstaking process to find out what happened.

Many of them making the deadly journeys hoped to seek asylum in EU countries like Germany and France, while others planned to try their luck on a small boat to the United Kingdom, often due to existing family ties in the country. So far this year, Britain has received the fifth highest number of asylum applications in Europe.

There is no official data on the number of deaths, but an investigation carried out by Iin collaboration with the investigation office Lighthouse Reports, The SpiegelSolomon, ARD and RFE/RL Sofia, found that the bodies of 92 people suspected of being migrants were received this year in six morgues located in border areas along a stretch of the route – crossing Bulgaria, Serbia and Bosnia –, an increase of 46 percent over the whole of 2022.

Security at these countries’ borders has been strengthened in recent years, thanks to funding from the EU and the UK. Britain has provided training and equipment to Bulgaria’s border police since 2020, and Rishi Sunak announced in October that his government would launch bilateral initiatives with Bulgaria and Serbia aimed at tackling organized crime linked to illegal immigration.

Migration experts have criticized the agreements, highlighting the risks of such cooperation given that these countries’ border guards are known to have been involved in violations of international law, including pushbacks and other violence against migrants. people on the move.

The use of violence by border police in the Balkans has increased, with officers in some regions – including Bulgarian police operating near the Turkish border and Serbian police in northern Serbia – resorting to violence against people trying to cross borders, and sometimes forcing them illegally to cross borders. .

Instead of deterring people from making the journey, it led them to take longer and more dangerous routes to escape security forces, leading to more deaths.

At the same time, the number of people resettled via safe and legal routes to Europe has fallen, with 79 percent fewer relocated under UNHCR’s UK resettlement programs last year than in 2019, and 17 percent less in the EU as a whole.

Deaths of migrants crossing the Balkans

This investigation found that many migrants were buried in unmarked graves, sometimes within days – like Majd – due to lack of space in morgues, making it almost impossible for their families to locate them.

Milen Bozhidarov, prosecutor in Yambol, a Bulgarian town near the Turkish border, said Majd’s funeral took place after four days, in line with their procedure of carrying out “rapid” burials of unidentified migrants to free space in the morgue.

“When we have an unidentified body that was found in a place that gives us no other explanation except that the person is a migrant, and it is suggested that their loved ones are somewhere in the world and no one contacts us that day or the next day, then there is no objective reason for the body to be preserved,” he added.

“Unnamed” graves at Bijeljina cemetery, Bosnia (Photo: Aleksandar Milanovic)

Some family members were forced to pay bribes to morgue staff to find out whether their loved ones’ bodies were being held. I heard from several families claiming to have paid cash sums ranging from 50 to 300 euros to staff at the morgue in Burgas, a Bulgarian town near the Turkish border, to view the bodies.

Burgas morgue director Galina Mileva said she had not received any complaints about such incidents and encouraged people to report such cases to the morgue management.

The countries where these deaths occur, as well as Europe as a whole, are under increasing pressure from politicians, NGOs and forensic experts to create a mechanism to help families search for missing loved ones who died during of these trips.

Families face additional obstacles when they cannot travel due to their status or nationality. Asmatullah Sediqi, an Afghan asylum seeker in the UK, was prevented by UK Home Office rules from traveling to Bulgaria, where his brother Rahmatullah, aged 22, had disappeared, presumed dead after crossed the border from Turkey.

A friend came on his behalf, but Bulgarian police refused to provide any information and morgue staff said he would have to pay them 300 euros to view the bodies, Mr Sediqi said.

Rahmatullah Sediqi, a 22-year-old Afghan, disappeared while traveling through Bulgaria on his way to the UK (Photo: Asmatullah Sediqi)

“They just know money. They don’t care about human life,” he added.

Mr Sediqi, 29, who lives in asylum accommodation in Warrington, borrowed money to pay the bribe. His friend established that one of the bodies in the morgue was that of Rahmatullah.

Borrowing an additional 3,000 euros – which left him heavily in debt – Mr Sediqi paid a company to repatriate his brother’s body to his parents in Afghanistan. But he did not receive any information from the Bulgarian authorities about the circumstances of Rahmatullah’s death.

“They didn’t give us the results of the autopsy because I don’t have a visa to go there,” he said. “It’s very painful not knowing what happened to my brother.”

Dr. Vidak Simić, a pathologist in Bosnia who performs autopsies on bodies found in the Drina River on the Serbian border, said the number of bodies of unidentified migrants brought to him for autopsies had increased over the past year. the last year.

In 2023, it has examined the bodies of 28 people, up from five last year and three in 2021. The vast majority remain unidentified and are buried in graves marked “NN”, an abbreviation of a Latin term for a person without name.

The doctor is working with a local activist to try to help families find their missing loved ones, checking his autopsy records to see if any unidentified bodies match the description of the missing – but he says a proper system is necessary.

“(Families) undertake a painstaking process, through embassies and funeral organizations, to obtain a bone sample, so they can compare it with that of a member of their family,” he says. “No one is doing the work to connect families with those who drowned. »

European Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatović described European countries’ “inaction” to facilitate DNA matching and create a procedure for collecting data on migrant disappearances and deaths.

Erik Marquardt, a Green Party politician in the European Parliament, said the fact that countries like Bulgaria bury unidentified bodies within days suggests they “don’t want attention to be drawn to these cases.”

“We need to think about the possibility of creating a database at European level that would force member states to clarify: who is this person’s child, who are their parents, how to contact them? It’s very important,” he added.

Until then, the bodies of those who die fleeing conflict will continue to pile up in morgues or be buried without a trace, leaving more families to endure an agonizing process only to discover they are dead – or left in a perpetual state of uncertainty.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The UK and Bulgaria have a close law enforcement partnership. By working together, we are able to strengthen Bulgaria’s border security, combat the serious threats of organized crime and immigration-related crime, and disrupt the economic model of these criminal groups.

“People who are awaiting the outcome of their asylum claim in the UK are not allowed to travel abroad, but receive a number of supports from the government. »

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