Dead refugees in the Balkans: bribes to find missing relatives
In comparison to 2015, today more asylum seekers are dying on the Balkan route. While relatives are forced to overcome state indifference to identify their loved ones, they are also forced to bribe authorities, even border guards, in the hope of finding them.
He had hoped to find his son in a refugee camp. And after spending three weeks looking for him, he had prepared himself for the possibility of finding him in a hospital.
But he didn’t expect to find him in the graveyard.
When the policeman with Bulgarian insignia on his uniform showed him the picture of his son lying lifeless in the grass, he lost the ground under his feet. “I wish I could at least have been able to see Majd one last time. My mind still can’t believe that the person in this grave is my son,” says Husam Adin Bibars.
The 56-year-old Syrian refugee, a father of four other children, had spent 22 days searching for his son from afar when he decided to spend his meager savings to travel from Denmark to Bulgaria to look for him – but it was too late.
In Bulgaria, he learned that 27-year-old Majd’s body had been buried within just four days of its discovery. Majd had been buried as an unidentified person; there was nothing to indicate that the person buried under that pile of dirt, which Bibars later visited, was his son.
“We hear that Europe is the land of freedom, democracy, and human rights,” says Bibars soberly. “Where are human rights if I am not able to see my son before his burial?”
Dead without identification
Majd had crossed from Turkey to Bulgaria with a group of about 20 other people, hoping to reunite with his parents and siblings in Europe. Once he arrived, his pregnant wife and their daughter, Hannah, would follow.
Toward the end of September, he stopped returning calls and texts. The smuggler told Bibars that Majd had fallen ill and they needed to leave him behind. Authorities told Bibars his son died of thirst, exhaustion, and exposure.
In recent years, with the support of EU funds and the increased involvement of the European border agency Frontex, Balkan countries have stepped up border controls, constructing fences, deploying drones and surveillance mechanisms. But this doesn’t deter asylum seekers – it causes them to take longer and more dangerous routes to avoid authorities.
An investigation by Solomon in collaboration with investigative newsroom Lighthouse Reports, the German magazine Der Spiegel and German public television ARD, the British newspaper i, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, found that the hostility people face at the borders of Europe in life continues even in death.
We found that since the start of 2022, the lifeless bodies of 155 people presumed to be migrants have ended up in morgues close to borders along a route that includes Serbia, Bulgaria, and Bosnia.
According to the data, for 2023 there is already a 46% increase in deaths compared to the whole of 2022.
In the Balkans, people making the journey have to cope with harsh weather conditions, but also with pushbacks, increased brutality by border guards and smugglers, theft by border forces – even detention in secret prisons.
For their part, the families of those who go missing or die in the region have to search for their loved ones in morgues, hospitals, and special Facebook and WhatsApp groups, and to cope with an equally arduous effort facing the indifference of the authorities.
In Bulgaria, this investigation reveals, they often also need to pay bribes in the hope of learning more about their missing loved ones.
The 10 key findings of the investigation:
In 2022, the number of people travelling irregularly through the Balkans to Western Europe reached its highest point since 2015, with Frontex recording 144,118 irregular border crossings.
The corresponding figure for 2023 is lower (79,609 by September), but remains a multiple of 2019 (15,127) and 2018 (5,844).
The Balkan route is more dangerous than ever: in the absence of a centralised relevant registration system, the International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) Missing Migrants platform suggests that more people died or went missing in 2022 than in 2015.
According to data gathered for this investigation, at least 155 unidentified bodies ended up in six selected morgues along a section of the Balkan route that includes Bulgaria, Serbia, and Bosnia. The majority of the bodies (92) were found this year.
For 2023, the number is already showing a 46% increase compared to 2022, and is exploding in some morgues.
Some morgues in Bulgaria (Burgas, Yambol) are having difficulty finding space for the bodies of refugees. Others in Serbia (Loznina) have no space at all.
This contributes to unidentified bodies being buried within days, in ‘No Name’ graves. This means that families are left without the opportunity to search for their loved ones.
In Bulgaria, families told us that they had to bribe staff at hospitals and morgues, but border guards too, when searching for their loved ones. Sources in the field confirm the practice, which is also recorded in an audio file in our possession.
In Bosnia, at least 28 people presumed to be asylum seekers have already died in the Drina River this year, compared to just five in 2022 and three in 2021.
Bureaucracy and lack of state interest are recorded as hampering efforts to identify dead asylum seekers.
Dead but cause of death unknown
What do you do when your little brother is missing, and because of your status in the country you live in, you can’t travel to look for him?
Asmatullah Sediqi, a 29-year-old asylum seeker, was in his asylum accommodation in Warrington, UK, when his brother’s travel companions informed him that 22-year-old Rahmatullah was likely dead.
Due to his status as an asylum seeker, the UK Home Office did not allow Asmatullah to return to Bulgaria, which he had also crossed on his journey, to look for his brother.
When a friend was able to go on his behalf, the Bulgarian police refused to give any information. And the morgue staff asked for 300 euros to let him see some bodies, Sediqi said in this investigation.
“In such a situation, a person should help a person,” he added. “They only know money. They are not interested in human life.”
He managed to borrow the amount they asked for. In July 2022, 55 days after his brother’s disappearance, the Burgas hospital confirmed that one of the bodies in the morgue belonged to Rahmatullah. With another 3,000 euros borrowed, a company repatriated the remains to their parents in Afghanistan.
But to this day, Sediqi is consumed by one thought: he doesn’t know how, he hasn’t been told why, his brother died.
The Bulgarian authorities have not given him the results of the autopsy “because I don’t have a visa to travel there,” he says. “I’m sure that when the police found him in the forest, they must have taken some photos. It’s very painful not knowing what happened to my brother. It’s devastating.”
“Not a single complaint”
As part of this investigation by Solomon, Lighthouse Reports, RFE/RL, inews, ARD και Der Spiegel, several relatives told us they had also been forced to bribe workers at the Burgas hospital’s morgue to find out if their family members were among the dead.
When we asked the hospital administration whether they were aware of such practices, Galina Mileva, head of the forensic medicine department at Burgas hospital, said that they had not received “a single report or complaint about such a case. The identification of the bodies is done only in the presence of a police officer conducting the investigation and a forensic expert.”
The administration also replied that there is no legal provision under which employees could claim money from relatives for this procedure.
“We appeal to these complaints to be addressed through official channels to us and to the investigating authorities. If such practices are found to exist, the workers will be held accountable,” they added.
“Money is requested at every step of the process”
Another relative, whose family also travelled to Bulgaria in late 2022 to search for a family member, told us that after they paid staff at the morgue 300 euros to be allowed to look at the dead bodies, they also had to pay border guards.
It was the only way they could be taken seriously, the relative explained.
When they asked the border guards to show them photos of people who had been found dead, the border guards said they didn’t have time, but when the family agreed to pay 20 euros for each photo shown to them, time was found.
Georgi Voynov, a lawyer for the Bulgarian Committee Helsinki Refugee and Migrant Programme, confirmed that families of deceased persons have approached the Committee about cases in which hospitals asked for large sums of money to confirm that the bodies of their loved ones were there.
“They complain that they are being asked for money at every step of the process,” he said.
International organisations, including the Bulgarian Red Cross, confirmed that they had such experiences from persons they had supported, who said they had been forced to pay money to hospitals and morgues.
A Bulgarian Red Cross official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, commented:
“We understand that these people are very overwhelmed and have to be paid extra for all the extra work they do. But this should be done in a legal way.”
* In the investigation, coordinated by Lighthouse Reports, participated Stavros Malichudis, Jack Sapoch, May Bulman, Maria Cheresheva, Steffen Ludke, Ivana Milanovic Djukic, Nicole Voegele, Jelena Obradović-Wochnik, Thom Davies, Arshad Isakjee, Doraid al Hafid, Anna Tillack, Oliver Soos, Klaas van Dijken, Aleksandar Milanovic, Camelia Ivanova, Pat Rubio Bertran.