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Linda Caglioni is a freelance journalist based in Italy. His work has been published in publications such as Espresso and Il Fatto Quotidiano.
The whole board has pictures of their son, Yasser. In a silver frame sits a picture of her as a child with short, dark curls, her shy smile giving the impression that the camera has caught her by surprise.
I’m in the living room of the Idrissi family, in their house in the center of Fes – Morocco’s second most populous city – where Yasser’s mother, Haiat, recently spent months preparing for her son’s funeral. There is pain in this house. And the courage to face it.
In another picture, Yasser is protecting his hand on the shoulder of his younger sister in the background of the nature reserve, the acerbic expression of the teenager shows on his face. Another shows her in traditional dress, hugging her father, Noureddine. The memories opened by these photos are all that is left for the family to preserve Yasser’s memory.
“When I thought I was old, I thought Yasser would take care of me and my husband. Planning a farewell ceremony for your child is something that a parent cannot expect to do. And even if I accept the will of Allah, I will miss him forever,” said his mother.
Haiat talks non-stop, cleaning up the house before relatives come to his son’s funeral. And though every mention or memory of him requires a painful effort of memory, he is refreshed. He has been waiting to bury his son for a long time.
Yasser died on the “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 northern countries of the European Union was stopped. His father learned of Yasser’s death from Facebook, when one of his friends wrote: “May God have mercy on Yasser’s life.”
From that moment, the family started a huge fight to find out what happened to him and get his body back. After two and a half years of calling the embassy and filing documents, the Idrissi family returned their son’s body.
But their war is not new.
According to the International Organization for Migration, about 29,000 people lost their lives in the migration process in Europe between 2014 and 2021. Despite this, the EU still does not provide a program to help those who want to return the body of their loved one. In fact, in many cases, the victims’ relatives are left to deal with the problems alone, and the process can take months, sometimes even years.
The deaths of migrants on the Balkan route are no exception. According to statistics provided by UNITED for Intercultural Action – a group of European NGOs that works to help refugees, migrants and minorities – about 2,100 people died in this way in the last nine years. And the actual number may be higher due to insufficient information.
The lack of aid from international organizations has led to many people volunteering to help refugee families. Bosnian activist Sanela Klepić started volunteering a few years ago, and since then, she often finds her inbox full of messages asking for help to find a migrant.
“I can’t have days off,” he said. “Relatives always text me if someone is missing or dead. They need reassurance and know how to restore the body. Sometimes, he cannot speak English and writes to me in Arabic, even though he knows I don’t understand because he has no one to talk to.”
Klepić is a member of the Facebook protest group “Dead and Missing in the Balkans”. And on the group’s website, activists, refugees and family members share photos or information about those lost.
Since the birth of her son, Nourredine has also started helping other families, using her own experience to help others cope with a similar situation. They call embassies, collect information on missing persons and try to disrupt good relations with funeral homes in the countries where the deaths occur.
“Many of those who lost their sons on the Balkan route never left their villages and only spoke Berber,” he said. “He never sent a document or booked an appointment online. “Some of them may decide to quit after calling another poor ambassador – and that’s not good,” the 62-year-old continued.
Nourredine is a fighter. After months of waiting due to the epidemic and the increase in the cost of repatriation due to the power crisis, he persuaded the Moroccan embassy to offer a sum of €1,500 to restore it. A large part of the money – about €3,270 – was donated by the Tahara Association, which campaigns to raise money to help families in crisis or extreme poverty to improve the amount of reimbursement for the eyes.
He said: “When I first received the confirmation of my son’s death in Croatia, the boys who were traveling with him told me that it was not true, that Yasser was alive, giving me conflicting information. “I was confused and wanted my son to be kept in the mortuary, so that I could ask to be examined again. Instead, Croatian cemetery workers buried him without my permission. “
Neither Croatian nor Moroccan authorities have investigated what happened to Yasser. “My son was an illegal immigrant. His mother and I were always against his decision to immigrate without permission. But he didn’t hurt anyone. He had the right to live like any other person. Now that he’s gone, I have the right to find him [out] the truth. I will seek it until my last breath,” said Noureddine.
Request He planned to send to the European Court of Human Rights to request an investigation into the death of his son gathered more than 6,000 people 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 crossing a river – drowning is the leading cause of death on the Balkan route. And thanks to the Croatian Women to Women group, Becky was finally able to retrieve her brother’s body three years after his death. “If it wasn’t for the volunteers who paid for the funeral and the return flight, I don’t know how we would have placed Abdullah here in Morocco,” he said.
“Every case is different. Some refunds can be made within five days of death, and others can take months, if not years – even if identification has already been made. It also depends on the policy of the country of origin, “said Marijana Hameršak, a researcher at the University of Zagreb. “It is very important that there is no way to manage this process. We help families and act as a mediator for local funeral homes. But what will happen if we no longer have the time or energy to help them?”
Human rights activists have long pressed for an independent European body to support family members. However, at present, the chances of this happening are slim. “The European countries have their chance that these deaths do not have a name because if there is no name, there is no crime. Also, that is why people continue to talk about the lack of the Balkan route as if it were an accident,” concluded Hameršak.
Weather, rivers or streams should not be seen as the cause of death, he said. This is the result of current immigration policies.