Croatia denies migrant border attacks after new reports of brutal pushbacks

Lorenzo Tondo
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Marko Đurica/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Marko Đurica/Reuters

Croatia has dismissed allegations of violence by its border patrol after new reports emerged this week of border police allegedly beating, robbing and sexually abusing migrants.

On Wednesday the head of home affairs for the European Commission, Ylva Johansson, said that she was taking the allegations “very seriously”.

The Croatian government said that following the latest accusations, it would launch an investigation with the goal of removing any doubt about police conduct and punishing any possible misdemeanours.

Yesterday the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) said they had taken new testimonies from a group of 23 migrants intercepted on Monday in woods near the Croatian–Bosnian border.

The group, mostly from Bangladesh, had all entered the country from Bosnia. They say they stopped to sleep but awoke to find themselves surrounded by men armed with truncheons, pistols and night vision goggles – the Croatian police who patrol the EU’s longest external border.

“‘How many of you are gay?’ asked a policeman, wearing a black uniform and a balaclava,” one Bangladeshi man said to the DRC medical team.

“At that point, we were stripped naked and ordered to form a line and put our hands on the shoulders of the man in front. They had just robbed us, beaten us with batons and wooden sticks.”

“Are you gay?”, the Croatian official allegedly asked one of the migrants before sexually assaulting him with a tree branch.

It is the second allegation of sexual violence documented in less than a week by members of the Croatian police against asylum seekers in the Bosnia-Croatia border region. The latest testimonies suggested an increase in the brutality used in pushbacks on the Bosnia-Croatian border.

“Croatian authorities have committed to investigate reports of mistreatment at their external borders, monitor this situation closely and keep the commission informed on progress made,” read a statement on social media from Johansson.

“Today I am meeting with ministers from the western Balkans to discuss cooperation on migration management in light of the new pact on migration and asylum. I reminded [them] that effective border management must be conducted in full respect of fundamental rights.”

European commissioner for home affairs Ylva Johansson.
European commissioner for home affairs Ylva Johansson. Photograph: Olivier Hoslet/EPA

On Wednesday, the Guardian reported the case of a man who, on 12 October, with four other Afghan migrants, including two minors, crossed the Croatian border near Šturlić. His account was almost identical to that of the Bangladeshi. In Velika Kladuša, Dr Mustafa Hodžić, who examined the Afghan man, said he had “unmistakable signs of sexual violence. I’ve never seen anything like it, even if it isn’t the first time as a doctor [that] I have seen signs of sexual violence on migrants, which, according the asylum seekers’ accounts, were perpetrated on Croatian territory by Croatian officials dressed in black uniforms.”

Last year a group of 36 mostly Syrian asylum seekers, including minors, were stopped by the Croatian police near Donji Vaganac. They reported similar sexual assaults to the watchdog organisation Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN).

“We didn’t try to apply for asylum,” one man told BVMN. “How can I apply for asylum or expect to be given protection from a country whose police officers force me to strip to my underwear and [sexually assault me] in front of my wife and children?”

According to most victims interviewed by the media and NGOs in recent years, the men responsible for these alleged atrocities are officers in black uniforms and balaclavas, to whom other Croatian police would hand the migrants over, to push them back to Bosnia.

Jack Sapoch, from BVMN and a member of No Name Kitchen, an NGO operating in Bosnia, says there is a spectrum of Croatian forces working along the border. “According to our research, these uniforms are consistent with those worn by the Croatian ministry of the interior’s intervention police units, who are deployed to the border from police stations all over the country.”

Antonia Pindulić, legal adviser at the Croatian NGO Centre for Peace Studies, said that “in this context, a very important testimony was given by a police officer that revealed the so-called ‘action corridor’, whose actions and manner of operating corresponds to those noted in this case.

According to media reports, in 2017, the so-called ‘action corridor’ was formed with the aim of preventing irregular migration. In this initial phase, ‘‘the action was formally legal and it was made of crime-police officers’’. However “following the escalation of the crisis and the relocation of migrant routes to the depths of Bosnia, two years ago the ‘action corridor’ began to deal exclusively with the capture of both smugglers and migrants. Crime-police officers left the group, and ordinary officers, considered surplus in their units, were recruited.

‘’Unfortunately, these types of violations, torture and pushbacks have become systematic practice of Croatian police,’’ Pindulić added. ‘’In four years now, there are hundreds of thousands of victims’ testimonies, photos, videos, medical documentation, reports from the national and international organisations, as well as testimonies about illegal orders from the policemen - but there is no effective, independent investigation done in any of the cases so far.’’

Migrants gather before trying to cross the Bosnia-Croatia border near Velika Kladusa
Migrants wait in fields before trying to cross the Bosnia-Croatia border near Velika Kladuša.
Photograph: Marko Đurica/Reuters

“We have seen the reports, which are cause for concern,” said Jan Kapić, spokesperson for the UN refugee agency in Croatia. “We continue to advocate with the Croatian authorities for establishment of an independent monitoring mechanism that would investigate the reports of mistreatment and abuse at the border.”

In June, the Guardian revealed that EU officials were accused of an “outrageous cover-up” for withholding evidence of Croatia’s failure to supervise border forces. Internal emails showed Brussels officials fearful of full disclosure of Croatia’s lack of commitment to a monitoring mechanism that EU ministers had agreed to fund.

“The testimonies collected from victims of pushbacks are horrifying,” said Charlotte Slente, DRC secretary general. “More than 75 persons in one week have all independently reported inhumane treatment, savage beatings and even sexual abuse.”