Who is Responsible for the Death of Five-Year-Old Refugee Madina?

By 12 December 2017

Croatian police claims jurisdiction of the Serbian Prosecutor’s office. However, the office of the Croatian Ombudswoman initiates its own investigation.

Around 8 p.m. on 21 November, 2017, a five-year-old Afghan refugee Madina Hussiny died after being hit by a train while trying to cross the Serbian-Croatian border. According to Madina’s mother Muslima, they were part of a larger group of people who managed to cross the heavily-monitored border with Serbia and were resting on Croatian territory when they were found by the police. She said that they hoped the police would take them to a station where they would be able to seek asylum but that they were instead ordered to return to Serbia by walking back across the border. The group included four children under the age of ten and Muslima allegedly begged the police to at least let them stay the night because the children were tired, cold and little. They refused.

As they were walking along the train tracks in pitch dark on their way back, a screeching train passed the group in Serbian territory approximately 250 meters from the Croatian border and Muslima rushed to her older daughter who tumbled to the ground as the train passed. It was soon afterwards that the group found the bloody body of the five-year-old. They ran back to Croatian territory with her body in their arms where they were met by the allegedly unsympathetic police who put them in a van which was later intercepted by an ambulance that took Madina, who the family believed was still alive at the time.

The family was returned to Serbia that night without any information about their daughter’s whereabouts or whether she was still alive. Days passed until they were able to confirm that their daughter was indeed dead and to reclaim her body  on the 23 November with the help of NGOs. Madina’s body was sent to Serbia with blood and mud still on her face. They received no death certificate and were ordered to bury her immediately on a cemetery in Šid, Serbia without being able to perform the ritual washing necessary for the traditional Muslim burial ceremony. They stood in the cold desolate cemetery and refused to bury her without the traditional wash but had to give in after they realized that the authorities could proceed without their consent and deport the rest of the family for the refusal. So they buried their daughter in a grave marked only with wooden markers. A permanent headstone marking her grave would have to be paid for by the family or, possibly, the NGOs. If not, the wooden pillars will not last and her grave will soon become unmarked. The family's harrowing account was conveyed by the British Guardian.

After the Guardian article, the Ministry of the Interior reiterated their claim that the group only crossed the border into Croatia after the train crash and that only the mother and Madina were taken by the police to meet the arriving ambulance while the rest were kept at the border. The medical team allegedly pronounced Madina dead after arrival. They say that Muslima then voluntarily agreed to return to Serbia along with the rest of the group while Madina’s body was taken to a morgue in Croatia. In their statement, the Ministry emphasized that the conduct of the Croatian border police did not in any way cause the accident or the death of the girl, as TCN reported on Saturday.

The Ministry of the Interior’s position is not only contradicted by the family but also by NGOs active in the area and other members of the group that was trying to cross the border that night. “They pushed us back to the train tracks. As always.” said one of the group. And indeed, large international organizations such as Doctors without Borders and local NGOs have spent over a year reporting on how Croatian police systematically pushes refugees who try to cross the border back to Serbia and denies them their legal right to seek asylum. The Centre for Peace Studies recorded hundreds of cases of pushbacks of both those refugees who tried to cross the green border and seek asylum after coming across the police and those who tried to seek asylum at regular border crossings. Many report being violently beaten, abused and robbed by the Croatian police.

Given that there is a lack of safe and legal routes for accessing asylum procedures in the EU and that refugees encounter pushbacks and opposition from Croatia and Hungary - the two border EU States that act as the bulwark of Europe - they often resort to dangerous alternatives such as illegally crossing the border or moving across territories to reach what they believe are more sympathetic EU Member States. Before taking their young children on this dangerous voyage, Madina’s family spent a year in Serbia. But Serbia has had a hard time dealing with a large number of refugees stuck in their country after Germany invited them to Europe and then closed European borders a year later.

After being stuck in limbo and forgotten, most of the refugees from Serbia eventually decide to try to reach Europe again, only now by foot through dangerous territories or by being transported by smugglers in cars, vans and trucks. Decomposing bodies of 71 refugees who suffocated during transport were found inside a locked truck parked in Austria in 2015 before the EU instituted an organized response to the influx of refugees. Now that the route is closed and the options to seek asylum in the EU are almost non-existent, smugglers and illegal border crossing is on the rise, as is the death toll. Nine people lost their lives on the Croatian border this year. Three of them were children.

Children, the elderly and the disabled are especially vulnerable groups in any forced migrations. When their only option is to try to reach safety and a normal life through illegal means, that vulnerability and the risk increases immeasurably. When they are harmed or killed along the way, the states that have a legal obligation to uphold their right to seek asylum and provide them with viable ways of exercising it renounce all responsibility.

However, the Croatian Ombudswoman Lora Vidović is asking the Ministry of the Interior to investigate complaints of police violence against refugees, in accordance with the standards prescribed by the European Court of Human Rights in relation to Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Her office is also conducting an investigation into Madina’s case. They are currently gathering information and are in touch with the family. The office will communicate publicly regarding the case when they gather more information.

In addition to her tragic death, there are several other problematic issues in this case. The Asylum Protection Centre from Serbia warns that there are more and more illegal deportations from Croatia and that Croatian police acted similarly to human smugglers in this case. “It is not possible to illegally deport anyone under the cover of darkness and it seems that this was one of the main reasons why the accident happened. The procedure in case of illegal border crossings includes contacting the Serbian border police, sending a request to return people, sending evidence that people have crossed the border, and only after the Serbian authorities give their consent can such deportation be carried out legally,” they told N1 Television.

Another problematic issue is that the family have allegedly still not received her death certificate. According to the NGOs, the family never received it from the Serbian authorities and the Serbian police allegedly never received it from Croatia. The Croatian Ministry of the Interior failed to respond to inquiries from both the Guardian, as well as the international and local NGOs regarding the certificate even though Madina’s death occurred three weeks ago. It is unclear how the Croatian authorities managed to transport the body across the border or how the Serbian authorities buried it if they did not have proper documentation.

It is absurd that a living five-year-old is obliged to provide valid documents to Croatia in order to cross the border, but that Croatia is able to transport her dead body back across that same border without providing documents or answers to either the family, the organizations supporting them, the press or allegedly even to the Republic of Serbia. If Croatia did indeed fail to provide a death certificate, wouldn’t transporting her body across the border also be illegal?