Refugee Victims’ Families Still Search for Answers and Solutions

In August of last year, 71 refugees (59 men, 8 women, and 4 children) from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan traveling from Hungary to Austria were found dead in a truck on the side of the road. The incident was covered briefly in the news and quickly forgotten, but for the victims’ families, who are still waiting for resolution, it is not yet over.

The author spoke with a Syrian Kurdish man, Khalil Mustafa, who has been charged by several Syrian and Iraqi families to follow the case. He himself lost two sons in the truck as they were on their way to Austria. His words shed light on how complex the issue is and on the misunderstandings that may occur when victims’ families try to communicate with officials from the countries connected with the issue.

“Given the legal grounds of the Austrian truck case, it is an international offense, a cross border crime,” says Mustafa, 61 years old. “The perpetrators of the crime are of several nationalities, and their victims belong to different nationalities. The groundwork for the crime occurred across several nations, before the crime was discovered in Austria.” According to Mustafa, there are “a variety of legal and logistical reasons for the crime to be tried in Austria or another country of the European Union. This event happened, or at least, was discovered on Austrian soil, and thus it falls under the legal jurisdiction of Austria, in accordance with the nation’s jurisdiction over its land and what occurs on them.”

He disagrees with Austrian authorities’ decision to hand the case over to Bulgaria, without explanation, after completing their investigation. “The Austrian authorities gave the case up to Hungary,” Mustafa says. “This is a violation of the law, particularly because Austria is most closely connected to the crime, and had a responsibility to handle the case. Furthermore, according to the law establishing the European Union, the legal system of the European Union should have priority over Hungary’s for establishing a special court for the crime of the Austrian truck.” Despite Mustafa’s legal rationale, the law that applies to cross-border crimes is unclear. What troubles him most is that Hungary is well known for its harsh laws and inflexibility in dealing with illegal immigrants.

The victims’ families fear that their rights, and those of the victims, will not be upheld because neither the authorities nor the media paid attention to the case. They feel that Austrian authorities stalled for time, delayed speaking to them, and deliberately hid the facts and circumstances of the crime from them until Austrian authorities made the decision to transfer the case to the Hungarian legal system. According to Mustafa, Austrian authorities did not release the results of their investigations and did not inform the victims’ families, despite having promised to announce the full details. When the victims’ families enquired with Austrian officials about why the case was transferred to Bulgaria, they were told that Austria had nothing to do with the case.

The truck victims’ families had been trying to communicate with their children starting on August 26, 2015 until the moment their bodies were discovered in the truck. After that point, they communicated with the Austrian authorities in charge of the case at the time.

According to the victims’ families, they provided the names and addresses of their children, as well as all information available in their personal documents, but Austrian authorities handling the case took two weeks after the bodies were discovered in the truck to respond to them. “All this indicates that the Austrian authorities are not being honest with us,” they add. “They promised us that they would publish the final report about the incident, but in the end they gave the case up, handed it over to Hungary, and abdicated any legal responsibility towards it.” They also say that Austrian authorities did not inform them how the case is progressing. They only know that the authorities have detained eight individuals, who will be tried in court early next year. The victims’ families do not know the charges, and cannot travel to Hungary for the trial.

“The information blackout about the truck crime helped the smugglers supervising the truck flee and disappear,” they add. “We’re not accusing Austria of perpetrating the crime, but there are a lot of question marks about how Austrian authorities are dealing with the case.”

The request for a special international court on neutral soil, not in Hungary, is one of the victims’ families’ central demands because the perpetrators of the crime and their victims are from several different countries. They sent a letter to the United Nations in hopes that it would create a special court, secure lawyers for the victims’ families and ensure that the judges are able to issue rulings that are enforceable in this context. The United Nations has no authority in this kind of case, however, as it falls under the states’ authority, and possibly the European Union. A mix of factors related to the families themselves, the location of the court, their inability to pay the cost required to travel there, language difficulties, and European authorities’ reluctance in dealing with them, have prevented them from following the case.

The victims’ families also complain that Austrian authorities demanded payment of 6,000 Euros for returning each victim’s body, otherwise the victims would be buried in Austria. Ultimately, Austria contacted the authorities in the victims’ countries, and repatriated the bodies because the families could not pay the price requested. The families are also dissatisfied that Austrian authorities simply wrote “died of suffocation” on their death certificates, with no indication of the circumstances that led to their deaths.

The victims’ families say they have provided as much information as possible but have seen little response from the Austrian and Hungarian authorities, despite their promises to do otherwise. One family who lost their son in the truck mentioned a voicemail which their son sent to his sister while he was being smuggled, which clearly shows that he was calling for help, given what was happening to him and the rest of the refugees. The family was surprised to learn that Austrian authorities had not used this information.

The brother of one of the victims contacted another middleman, seeking information about his brother. He was given a different middleman’s phone numbers and Facebook pages. He asked this man about his brother, and was told: your brother arrived in Austria and is now in prison. The man warned him not to call again and did not answer the phone again. Despite the fact that the man’s brother had been killed in the truck, and that he shared the middleman’s phone number and Facebook page with the authorities, no move has been made to arrest this man.

One year after this crime, there have been no developments in the case in which their children were killed, despite their attempts to communicate with the European authorities, and despite them sending several letters to the United Nations and human rights agencies. While the international community continues to discuss the refugee crisis, the story of these families shows how complicated these cases are, and that finding a solution is impossible without international legal mechanisms.

Jiwan Soz is a Kurdish Syrian journalist who writes for several Arab newspapers and agencies, including al-Quds al-Arabi and al-Jazeera.

Image: Photo: Migrants from Syria wait to enter Macedonia next to a border fence at the Macedonian-Greek border in the village of Idomeni, Greece February 23, 2016. REUTERS/Marko Djurica