Enough is enough: deaths on the western Balkans route

Enough is enough: deaths on the western Balkans route


Written by: IRR European News Team

man with bloody bandaged head

A public push is needed to stop refugee and migrant deaths on the western Balkans route.

IRR News continues its investigation into violations and deaths at EU borders, focusing on seven deaths in the Serbian, Hungarian and Bulgarian border zones.

All the official reports, photographic evidence, testimonies and case studies are there. Fresh Response Serbia, the Migrant Solidarity Group of Hungary (Migszol), Belgrade Centre for Human Rights (BCHR), Hungarian Helsinki Committee, Doctors Without Borders, Are You Syrious (AYS), Moving Europe, Centre for Peace Studies, Jesuit Refugee Service, Amnesty International, Save the Children, Human Rights Watch, these and countless other NGOs and activists have tirelessly documented a pattern of violation and abuse by border guards, military personnel and vigilantes, at Serbia’s borders with Hungary, Bulgaria and Croatia.

The Institute of Race Relations (IRR), which keeps a record of migrant and refugee deaths in Europe in an attempt to ‘memorialise death and restore full humanity to those who have died’,[1] has noted seven deaths over the last year in Serbia, and at the border zones with Hungary and Bulgaria.[2] An estimated 8-9,000 refugees are currently stranded in Serbia, many of whom have survived the winter, when temperatures plummeted to -20C, camping in abandoned warehouses behind the main train station in Belgrade. One 18-year-old Afghan boy did not make it through the winter. In November 2016, his frozen and malnourished body was discovered in an abandoned industrial building in Bulgaria, very close to the Serbian border. Two others whose deaths were recorded, an unnamed Afghan and an unnamed Pakistani man, were walking in dangerous areas close to unofficial makeshift migrant settlements when they were knocked down by vehicles. While the Afghan man, the victim of a hit-and- run, died close to Belgrade, the Pakistani man died close to the Horgoš transit zone, on the Serbian side of the border with Hungary, in a field which is only accessible by walking along a highway and across a small dirt road.

Bloodied leg from violence at border zone © Fresh Response
Bloodied leg from violence at border zone © Mario Badagliacca

Four more deaths occurred in the highly militarised border zones and increasingly lawless areas between Serbia and Bulgaria to the south-east and Hungary to the north. Here vigilantes and far-right civil militia are also known to launch manhunts for refugees. Border guards in

Hungary, Croatia and Bulgaria are also accused, variously, of robbing and stripping refugees, beating them with batons and fists, using pepper sprays, administering electric shocks, setting dogs on people and, in the latest scandal, taking selfies on mobile phones while assaulting migrants, compounding beatings with humiliation.
Tellingly, the official name for Hungary’s 47,000-strong border force, which operates not just in border areas but in several Hungarian cities, is határvadászok (border hunters) instead of rendőrök (policemen). As Eva S. Balogh, the editor of Hungarian Spectrum, perceptively points out, naming ‘these new border guards “border hunters” is significant. A guard is passive until whatever he is guarding is attacked. A hunter actively pursues the game.’ 

Structural violence at militarised borders
In summer 2015, the Hungarian government reacted to the ‘refugee crisis’ by erecting a 109-mile barbed-wire fence at its border with Serbia. Its original estimated cost was €98 million, but as soldiers and prison inmates are currently expanding the barbed wire fence into a new, electrified 13ft barrier, costs are rapidly rising. A second fence at the border with Croatia has also been built. Then, in July 2016, a new law was introduced that allows for the immediate return of those caught at the 
border fence or up to 8km inside Hungarian territory.

Barbed wire fence put up at border. © S.Nandzik
Barbed wire fence put up at border. © S.Nandzik

At the same time, a fast-track scheme was launched to boost recruitment to the border force, with recruitment scouts visiting secondary schools and promising wages far in excess of the usual wage for young people. New recruits are trained in judo and how to assemble guns blindfold.

With Croatia and Macedonia following Hungary’s lead in constructing border fences, the notion grew that refugees would finally be deterred from attempting to enter the EU via what has become known as ‘the western Balkans route’. But refugees and migrants continue to make their way to Serbia, a country that used to be considered a transit country and does not have a fully functioning asylum system. Save the Children estimates that around 46 per cent of refugee and migrants stranded in Serbia are children and 20 per cent of these children, many from Afghanistan, are unaccompanied and travelling alone, some as young as 8 and 9 years old.

Part of the reason why refugees and migrants still risk the journey onward from Greece is due to the nature of the EU-Turkey agreement, which only provides international protection for Syrians and Iraqis at the designated Greek and Italian ‘hotspots’. The dysfunctional nature of the Greek hotspots, where refugees have been left freezing over the winter, is another factor propelling migratory movements. NGOs point out that it is not impossible for refugees to make it to Serbia, which is not in the EU. But the Serbian police routinely refuse to register asylum requests, treating asylum seekers as destitute migrants. And as the refugees attempt to make their onward journey, they face violence from several sources, particularly in the border zones.

As already mentioned, Hungary (as well as Croatia) operates a policy of pushing back refugees into Serbia without due process or consideration of their protection needs. Many of those who are being pushed back sustain serious injuries. Furthermore, over the winter, displaced people were exposed to potential death by hypothermia, as, it is claimed, Hungarian border guards abandoned them in the snow, sometimes taking coats, clothes and shoes. MSF says that from January 2016 to February 2017 it treated 106 patients with injuries allegedly perpetrated by Hungarian border patrols, with 24 people treated since the beginning of 2017. But when accusations of police abuse were put to the Hungarian interior ministry, it described them as ‘unproven’ and ‘bogus’, adding helpfully, in a press release that MSF is supported by George Soros. The Serbian authorities, AI’s Balkans researcher, Todor Gardos told IRR News, are ‘complicit in the violations through their failure to register and report ex officio the abuses against people returned’.

Difficulties recording deaths

Significantly, five of the seven dead, in the list collated by IRR, were Afghans. They do not warrant international protection in the Greek hotspots, and now, following the EU-Afghanistan returns agreement, are left without help in Europe in the most desperate circumstances. One Afghan man, part of a group attempting to cross into Serbia from Bulgaria, died after a bullet was fired at him, accidentally, by a party of hunters. We do not have his name. Nor do we have the name of the 10-year-old boy who drowned in a pond while bathing in one of the makeshift camps that comprise the Horgoš transit zone, nor that of the 18-year-old who died of cold and hunger.

members of a camp at Serbian border
One of the camps at the Serbian border. © S.Nandzik

In the two remaining Afghan cases, those of Rahmat Ullah Hanife and Farhan al-Hwaish, family or friends were present when they died. This means we have the names of the dead. Without names, it is almost impossible to seek redress. While one can understand that some of the larger humanitarian organisations will not place names in the public domain until the families of the dead are traced, state officials are adept at using issues of confidentiality to control the flow of information as well as the narrative as to the causes of death.

The IRR contacted the office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) for further information on three of the cases mentioned above (the unnamed Afghan and Pakistani men who were struck down by vehicles, as well as the Afghan child), as these cases came to our attention after being reported in the UNHCR daily digest. Its protection unit informed us that ‘UNHCR is not in a position to provide you with personal data in line with UNHCR internal confidentiality guidelines’ and, furthermore, the organisation was ‘not able to provide … details concerning the police investigation’. It described these deaths as ‘unfortunate accidents’, adding that the UNHCR had decided to publicise them ‘in order to point out the risks that refugees and migrants take when trying to reach Western Europe irregularly’. The UNHCR also collects testimonies relating to border violence but, unlike AI, Save the Children and Human Rights Watch, it does not make these testimonies available to the wider public.

Eye witnesses were present when the two young men, Rahmat Ullah Hanife and Farhan al-Hwaish, died in the border areas between Serbia and Hungary. Both were travelling the western Balkans route with smugglers, friends or family members, and drowned in the treacherous river Tisza, which runs through Hungary but crosses several national borders. Not only is it alleged that Hungarian border guards failed to render assistance in both cases, but also, in the case of Farhan al-Hwaish, that border guards were criminally responsible.

Criminal responsibility?

Rahmat Ullah Hanife, aged 22, died in February 2017. Eye witnesses say that police laughed and joked as he fell through the cracked ice. Despite helicopters and drones being deployed in an attempt to recover his body, it has not been found and his cousin has launched a GoFundMe page to raise money towards the search and funeral costs. In order to help us understand whether pressure could be brought to bear on the Hungarian and Serb authorities in this case, IRR asked Last Rights for a legal opinion. Both governments must take heed of ‘human rights law including the European Convention on Human Rights’, a spokesperson told us. This instructs them ‘to take and continue to take all reasonable steps in a search and rescue operation, regardless of who the person in danger is or may be, until any survivor is rescued or body recovered, keeping families informed’. While the authorities are also obliged, where a body is not recovered, to interview eye witnesses and open up a missing person file, recording details on national and international missing persons systems, ‘anyone can register a person as missing with the International Commission on Missing Persons’, a process that ‘can be done online’.[3] But could, IRR News asked, any more be done to address the allegations that police misconduct may have contributed to the failure to rescue a person in distress? Again, the spokesperson was quite clear that, in law, such allegations ‘should be referred to an independent complaints organisation… investigated without delay through transparent and accountable procedures that enable families to participate effectively and respect rights.’ ‘In the absence of any of these procedures’, and with a seeming refusal to take action against the police, ‘a complaint to an ombudsman could be a starting point and local community groups may help with information.”

The body of 22-year-old Syrian Farhan al-Hwaish, who also drowned on the Hungarian side of the river Tisza, very close to its border line with Serbia, was found. Five days after his death in June 2016, and following international pressure, the office of the Hungarian prosecutor, in an emailed reply to questions from Reuters, stated that it had ordered an investigation into ‘suspicion of ill-treatment committed during an official procedure ‘by an ‘unknown perpetrator’, adding that it would examine what happened, and whether any police ‘on duty on the given stretch of the border can be held criminally responsible’. It also released the results of an autopsy which suggested that the death had been caused by drowning, and that no injuries were found on the body. András Léderer, information and advocacy officer at the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, told IRR News that the subsequent investigation was closed in December 2016. Its lawyers launched an appeal but on 6 March 2017 the prosecutor’s office informed them of its failure, and the official closure of the case.

The testimony of Farhan al-Hwaish’s brother, Abdullah al-Hwaish, who was swimming with him, suggests that he died as the border guards violently pushed him back into Serbian waters. As they swam to the Hungarian side of the Tisza, across a branch that forms the border with Serbia near the village of Roszke, the police, his brother states, threw objects at them, sprayed them with gas that caused his brother to choke and cough, and unleashed attack dogs to prevent them getting out of the water, shouting ‘Go back to Serbia. Go back. Swim! Swim!’ Police found the body two days later in the river, at the Hungarian border town of Szeged.

Issues of accountability and justice

One can only imagine what the families of these young men must feel, given the epic journey that took them from countries like Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan to Serbia. Why, after so much danger, should they end up risking their lives in icy water dodging the border guards’ attack dogs or, in other cases, the bullets of rural hunters? Distressingly, Serbia’s border zones with Hungary and Bulgaria rank amongst the most dangerous places in Europe for refugees and migrants.

Cover of Hungarian Helsinki Committee report.
Cover of Hungarian Helsinki Committee report.

Where does accountability lie, and how can it be achieved? The greatest responsibility lies with political leaders who have rapidly militarised borders at the same time as whipping up fears about refugees, denouncing them as illegal immigrants and Islamist terrorists. The frightening potential of this hate-inspiring rhetoric was seen on 7 March when, during a swearing-in ceremony for 462 new ‘border hunters’, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán spoke of the recruits as having a ‘calling’ that put them in the frontline of the the ‘defence of the Hungarian people’. He went on to describe migration as the ‘Trojan horse for terrorism‘. Patriotic anti-migrant fervour like this creates a climate where border violence is authorised, as it is seen as part of a higher purpose of protecting citizens from terrorism.

The European Commission, it could be argued, is also complicit in Hungarian human rights violations, as it has failed to press meaningful infringement proceedings against Hungary despite its flagrant abuses of international law,[4] the latest being the announcement that in future, asylum seekers will be detained in containers in the transit zones. And alleged EU complicity in the situation at the Hungarian-Serbian border is compounded by the presence of the EU’s European border and coast guard agency Frontex in the borderzone, where it is carrying out ‘flexible’ operational activities.

Questions to Frontex

We asked Frontex what was the nature of its activities at the Hungarian-Serbian border, whether it was concerned that its presence may lend legitimacy to the illegal push-back policy and whether it had made any representations to the Hungarian authorities as a result of the deaths of Rahmat Ullah Hanife and Farwan al-Hwaish. In an email exchange, Frontex stated that, as ‘regards information received so far, it should be noted that – within the context of operational activities coordinated by Frontex – no incidents of illegitimate use of force by Hungarian police have been confirmed.’ And ‘with regard to the deaths of Rahmat Ullah Hanife and Farwan al-Hwaish, Frontex has received two Serious Incident Reports that may refer to these incidents.’ While ‘Frontex does not have a mandate to carry out investigation in the Member States’, ‘in both reports there was no evidence indicating that violations of fundamental rights or international protection obligations had taken place.’

Frontex provided us with a three-page summary (pdf, 113KB) of its obligations under EU and international law, and described its role as discrete from regular border management. It laid out in great detail the process whereby Frontex, host member states and participating member states agree the basis of any joint operation. Regarding the joint operation ‘Flexible Operational Activities Land on Border Surveillance’ implemented at the Hungarian-Serbian border, Frontex was confident that its Operational Plan contained all the ‘necessary guarantees for the protection of fundamental rights’ in accordance with the relevant EU and international law. The recommendations of the Frontex Consultative Forum on Fundamental Rights’, as well as the Frontex Code of Conduct which ‘lays down procedures intended to guarantee the principle of the rule of law and the respect for and promotion of fundamental rights’ are also adhered to, it claimed.

Turning a blind eye

Then there is the presence of vigilante groups and far-right civilian militias springing up in rural areas of Hungary and Bulgaria, to which states turn a blind eye. Other issues have been thrown up by the shooting dead of a 20-year-old Afghan, in Serbian territory, but close to the Bulgarian border. The Belgrade Centre for Human Rights, which has followed the case, confirmed to us that it was indeed a tragic accident. The shooter was ‘visibly disturbed and even on verge of suicide after the incident’, a spokesperson for the centre told us. But he also believes the circumstances of the death are rooted in the ‘gross negligence’ of the authorities, as they allowed hunting to continue in the area, ignoring repeated calls for a ban. ‘A ban was placed on hunting only in the immediate border areas, and only for a few hundred metres’, while the death occurred a few kilometres inside Serbian territory.

There seems to be a lack of will within the European Commission as well as within the UNHCR to inform the public about the circumstances of these deaths. Ambivalence to issues of accountability and justice needs to be challenged. As we have repeatedly stressed in this article, a large number of smaller NGOs and even unfunded voluntary organisations, motivated by the simple desire to defend human dignity, are operating with extremely limited resources in countries which are actively hostile to their activities. They are doing their level best to get answers. But their concerns urgently need to be amplified by a far larger public push to stop violence against refugees and migrants and, above all, to stop deaths along the so-called western Balkans route.

28 March 2016: An unnamed Afghan man is the victim of a hit-and-run, being struck down by a vehicle as he was walking along the Belgrade-Nis highway near the Vrcin settlement. A police investigation is launched.

1 June 2016: Farhan al-Hwaish, a 22-year-old Syrian refugee, drowns on the Hungarian side of the river Tisza, after attempting to cross from Serbia. His brother, who crossed with him, says that Hungarian police guarding the river bank threw objects at them, sprayed them with gas and unleashed attack dogs to prevent them from climbing out of the water.

7 July 2016: A 10-year-old unnamed Afghan boy drowns while bathing in a pond near a makeshift encampment near the Horgoš transit zone, on the Serbian side of the border with Hungary.

Beds in migrant camp © S.Nandzik
Beds in migrant camp © S.Nandzik


23 August 2016: An unnamed 20-year-old Afghan man dies after being shot by a hunter in the chest after crossing over into Serbia from Bulgaria.

26 August 2016: A Pakistani man dies after being hit by a truck near the Horgoš transit zone, on the Serbian side of the border with Hungary.

November 2016: The frozen body of a young Afghan, aged 18, was found in an abandoned building in the village of Kosovo, Plovdiv Province, Bulgaria, near the border with Serbia.

4 February 2017: A young Afghan man, Rahmat Ullah Hanife, 22, travelling with other migrants from Belgrade, drowns in the river Tisza, after the ice on the river breaks while he is walking over it. Eyewitnesses claim that the Hungarian border guards observed the drowning, but did not intervene.

Related Links

Donate to the Find Rahmat campaign

AI and Human Rights Watch reports

Fresh Response Serbia

Hungarian Helsinki Committee

Belgrade Centre for Human Rights

Last Rights

[1] In this, we follow the pioneering approach taken by Australian activists and academics. See Leanne Weber and Sharon Pickering, 'Globalization and borders: Death at the global frontier', Routledge, 2011. [2] This article only covers deaths in Bulgaria in the regions that border with Serbia. There have been many more deaths at Bulgaria's borders with Romania and Turkey, where a fence has also been erected and a push-backs policy is also in operation. [3] At the time of going to press, the body had not been recovered but, according to Last Rights, where 'a body is recovered there should follow a thorough forensic investigation and an inquest conducted by an independent competent authority, with the full participation of family members including legal advice and representation'. [4] In December 2015, infringement proceedings against Hungary were launched on three minor technical issues and even here progress has been non-existent. On 14 March 2017, the European Court of Human Rights found that Hungary's 23-day detention of two asylum seekers and their removal to Serbia violated their human rights, exposing them to a risk of inhumane treatment, depriving them of liberty with no judicial review and providing no legal remedies.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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