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Refugees Belgrade January 2017
Refugees Belgrade January 2017Photography Lazara Marinković

The 19-year-old who died in a river trying to reach safety

Last month, Rahmat Ullah Hanife was killed trying to cross the Serbian-Hungarian border – putting 2017 on course to be the ‘deadliest year yet’ for refugees

The phrase “borders kill” seems to have become an abstract expression in recent months. But for 19-year-old Rahmat Ullah Hanife from Afghanistan, who died in the frozen Tisza river while desperately trying to reach EU soil, the fact that borders do kill has become a cruel reality. Afghans are currently the world’s largest refugee group after Syrians.

“He couldn’t wait anymore, he wanted to go,” his friend Jan tells me a few days after his death. Together with Hanife’s cousin and a group of friends who witnessed the tragic event last month, Jan, who is also 19 and from Kabul, came to Belgrade’s Info Park refugee support network asking for assistance in the search for his body. It still remains missing.

According to Jan, Hanife and his friends Nangyel, Sayed, Mohammed all agreed to pay 1000 euros each to be smuggled into Hungary. On the night of February 2, the smuggler brought the four young men to the frozen Tisza river, ordered them to leave their belongings, and told them to walk across the ice towards a village called Horgos. Reluctant, scared and left with what seemed like no choice, they started walking.

Hanife was third in line when the ice suddenly began cracking beneath their feet. The strong river current dragged him under the dark, freezing water in seconds. His friends desperately tried to save him, throwing him a branch to hold onto, but failed. “I can’t swim anymore, I can’t save myself” were the last words Hanife shouted into the night before he was gone forever.

Everybody screamed for help the moment the ice broke, looking down the river in hope that he would emerge from beneath the surface. It was only 40 minutes after that the Hungarian police came. “The police were just standing there for 30 minutes, doing nothing and shouting ‘Go back, go back!’,” Hanife’s friends tell me.

The rest of the group were forced to return to Belgrade the next day. A following search mission by the Hungarian police, restricted by floating icebergs on Tisza River, ended with no result. The smuggler has since disappeared.

A prominent figure within Belgrade’s refugee community during his stay in the abandoned barracks, Rahmat Ullah Hanife was very well known to volunteers and humanitarian workers active in the area. His friends tell me that he was joyful, handsome, honest.

After receiving death threats from the Taliban due to studying and speaking English, Hanife’s family sent him to Europe to live in peace and study computer science. He left Nangarhar seven months ago, a province where Isis is still active. “Nobody wants to leave his mother country,” Nangyel tells me. “But because of bad conditions, many of us are desperate to come here, even though we know that you can lose your life as well this way.”

“Nobody wants to leave his mother country, but because of bad conditions, many of us are desperate to come here, even though we know that you can lose your life as well this way” – Nangyel

Despite the closed borders, more and more people are attempting to enter EU from Serbia – which is causing serious problems in the country. On the same day that Hanife passed away, another four Afghan men suffered severe and life-threatening injuries at the railway station in the town of Sid, after attempting to climb on top of a stationary tank car when it exploded.

“It is not difficult to imagine that the arrival of spring and warmer temperatures will result in more tragedies, coming as a consequence of the hopeless, dead-end situation that both Serbia and the EU are yet to clearly address,” Info Park representatives wrote in a statement after Rahmat Ullah Hanife’s death.

Over the past two years, the UNHCR has repeatedly warned the international public about the increasing risks; proposing a detailed plan for stronger EU action on refugees in December 2016. “Dangers that refugees and migrants are exposed to have escalated since the official closing of the Balkan route, as well as the sums of money that highly organised groups of smugglers and human traffickers charge for crossing,” UNHCR spokesperson in Serbia Mirjana Milenkovski tells me. “From sexual and gender-based to labour exploitation, these risks include various forms of abuse.”

A large number of residents from makeshift camps and barracks behind Belgrade’s bus station tell UNHCR that they have attempted to cross the border with Hungary or Croatia with the help of smugglers. They also say they intend to keep trying until they eventually succeed to enter the EU. 

UNHCR estimates that around 7,700 refugees and migrants are currently stranded in Serbia due to border closures across Europe. Of those, 6,500 are sheltered in 17 government facilities. More than 1000 are sleeping rough in Belgrade city centre, often in disturbing and degrading conditions. Humanitarian agencies, aid organisations and independent volunteer groups do what they can to keep providing life-saving aid and protection.

In addition to the thousands who are currently stuck in Serbia, it is estimated that a total of 12,000 - 13,000 more people could be expected to arrive during 2017. And, with over 200 refugees drowning in dangerous crossings over the Mediterranean, or freezing to death across Europe’s borders and camps in January 2017, this year may be set to break 2016’s record of “the deadliest year yet” for refugees, migrants and asylum seekers in Serbia and the world.

UNHCR presented very specific proposals in Spring 2015, as well as another plan for stronger EU action on refugees in December 2016, with detailed explanations of how to avoid furthering the misery of people who are already struggling. “The only way to stop the suffering is for the EU countries to open their borders and take a unified stand towards the refugee crisis, with all countries in Europe taking responsibility and accepting a certain number of refugees as stated in EU’s relocation plan, efficient asylum procedures, expanded family reconnecting programs, as well as student and working visas and so on,” Milenkovski stresses.

Sadly, Rahmat Ullah Hanife’s death is more proof that closed EU borders do not stop people from crossing, they just put their lives in danger by coercing them into riskier paths. With Hungary’s plan to automatically detain any asylum seeker in container camps during asylum application, Poland following Slovenia in shutting its doors, aggressive push backs all over the continent and member states ignoring the relocation plan, the future seems grim.

Until – or if  – the current EU policies on refugees and migrants vastly improve, tragedies like Hanife’s drowning will be an inevitable consequence of blocked borders and carelessness towards thousands of desperate displaced people. One question remains: is Europe really willing to be responsible for a humanitarian failure already happening in front of our eyes?