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The dead and missing along Europe’s migration routes

The dead and missing along Europe’s migration routes

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Linda Caglioni is a freelance journalist based in Italy. Her work has been published in outlets including Espresso and Il Fatto Quotidiano.

An entire sideboard is covered in photos of their missing son, Yasser. In a silver frame sits a picture of him as a child with short, cropped black curls, his embarrassed smile giving the impression that the camera caught him by surprise.

I am in the living room of the Idrissi family, at their house in the center of Fes — Morocco’s second-most populous city — where Yasser’s mother, Haiat, recently spent months arranging her son’s funeral. There is ache in this house. But also the courage to confront it.

In another picture, Yasser protectively rests his hand on his younger sister’s shoulder against the backdrop of a nature park, the acerbic features of an adolescent outlining his face. Another shows him wearing a ceremonial gown, embracing his father, Noureddine. The memories unlocked by these images are all that’s left for the family to keep Yasser’s memory alive.

“When I imagined myself old, I used to think that Yasser would care for me and my husband. Organizing the ceremony of farewell to one’s child is something no parent would expect to do. And even if I accept Allah’s will, I will miss him forever,” his mother said.

Haiat speaks without stopping, tidying the house before relatives arrive for her son’s funeral. And although every mention or memory of him requires the painful effort of remembrance, she’s also relieved. She’s been waiting to bury her son for a very long time.

Yasser passed away on the so-called “migrant Balkan route” in May 2020 at the age of 27. His body was found in a river in Croatia, where his journey to the European Union’s northern countries was halted. His father found out about Yasser’s death from Facebook, after one of his friends posted: “God have mercy on Yasser’s soul.”

From that moment on, the family started a protracted fight to find out what had happened to him and to repatriate his body. After spending two-and-a-half years calling the consulate and filling out paperwork, the Idrissi family finally repatriated their son’s body.

But their struggle is hardly unusual.

According to the International Organization for Migration, around 29,000 individuals lost their lives along migration routes to Europe between 2014 and 2021. Despite this, the EU still doesn’t provide an efficient assistance program for those seeking to repatriate the body of a loved one. Instead, in most cases, victims’ relatives are left to deal with the complex procedures alone, and the process can take up to several months, sometimes even years.

Migrant deaths along the Balkan route are no different. According to figures provided by UNITED for Intercultural Action — a European network of NGOs that works to support migrants, refugees and minorities — about 2,100 people died along this route over the last nine years. And the actual figure may be higher because of incomplete information.

The absence of official support from international bodies has thus prompted dozens of volunteers to offer refugee families help. Bosnian activist Sanela Klepić started volunteering several years ago, and since then, she’s often found her inbox full of messages asking for help in finding a missing migrant.

Figures provided by UNITED for Intercultural Action show about 2,100 people died along the Balkan route over the last nine years | Orestis Panagiotou/EPA

“I cannot have days off,” she said. “Relatives always text me when someone goes missing or may have died. They need confirmation and to know how to get the body back. Sometimes, they cannot speak English and write me in Arabic, even though they know I can’t understand it because they don’t have anyone else to talk to.”

Klepić is also a member of the Facebook-based activist group “Dead and Missing in the Balkans.” And on the group’s page, activists, refugees and relatives actively share pictures or information about those who are lost.

Since losing his son, Nourredine has started assisting other families as well, using his personal experience to help others endure the same nightmare. He calls embassies, gathers information about the missing and tries to wring out better deals with funeral homes in the countries where the deaths occur.

“Many who lost their sons on the Balkan route have never left their villages and speak only Berber,” he said. “They have never sent a document or booked an appointment online. Some of them may choose to give up after yet another unsuccessful call to the embassy — and it’s not right,” the 62-year-old continued.

Nourredine is a fighter. After months of waiting because of the pandemic and the rising cost of repatriation due to the energy crisis, he convinced the Consulate of Morocco to contribute about €1,500 for the repatriation. A large part of the cost — around €3,270 — was covered by the Tahara Association, which runs a permanent fundraising campaign to help families living in conflict or extreme poverty sustain eye-watering repatriation costs.

“When I started receiving confirmation about my son’s death from Croatia, the boys traveling with him kept telling me it wasn’t true, that Yasser was alive, giving me contradictory versions of the facts,” he said. “I was confused and wanted my son to be kept in the morgue, so I could ask for another autopsy. Instead, the Croatian cemetery services buried him without my permission.”

Neither the Croatian nor the Moroccan authorities have investigated to find out what happened to Yasser. “My son was an illegal immigrant. His mother and I were always against his choice to migrate illegally. But he never hurt anyone. He had the right to live like any other human being. Now that he is gone, I have the right to find [out] the truth. I will seek it until my last breath,” Noureddine said.

A petition he drew up to send to the European Court of Human Rights asking for an investigation into his son’s death gathered over 6,000 signatures in just a few days.

But Noureddine’s story is similar to hundreds of others.

Becky, who is also Moroccan, lost her brother Abdullah in Croatia in 2020, also while crossing a river — drowning is a leading cause of death on the Balkan route. And thanks to the Croatian collective Women to Women, Becky was eventually able to repatriate her brother’s body three years after his death. “If it weren’t for the volunteers who paid for the funeral services and the repatriation flight, I don’t know how we could have buried Abdullah here in Morocco,” she explained.

“Every case is different. Some repatriations can occur within five days after a death, and others can take months, if not years — even if the identification has already been made. It also depends on the protocol of the country of origin,” said Marijana Hameršak, a researcher at the University of Zagreb. “It’s very significant that there’s no official system to manage these processes. We are the ones who assist the families and act as intermediaries with the local funeral homes. But what will happen when we no longer have the time or the strength to help them?”

Activists have long been pushing for an independent European body to assist relatives. However, at the moment, the likelihood of this happening is low. “European states have their advantage in keeping these deaths nameless because if there’s no name, there’s no case. Also, this is why people continue to talk about the disappearances on the Balkan route as if they were accidents,” Hameršak concluded.

The weather, rivers or ravines shouldn’t be seen as the cause of these deaths, she argued. They are the consequence of current migration policies.

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