Refugees and migrants have sustained “severe injuries” after having allegedly been whipped, beaten and sexually abused at the hands of Croatian authorities during their attempts to reach western Europe for asylum.
Last week, the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) collected testimonies from more than 70 refugees and migrants at the Miral camp in western Bosnia who said they experienced violent pushbacks by Croatian authorities.
The route through the Bosnia-Croatia border is popular with refugees attempting to cross into EU-member Croatia from Bosnia, with the aim of reaching Western Europe.
Human rights groups have long accused Croatian authorities of violent pushbacks, while many say refugees have also been robbed of their belongings in the process.
But the latest testimonies collected by DRC, sent to Al Jazeera on Wednesday, mark an escalation with reports of sexual abuse and “extreme violence”.
The victims include refugees from countries including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Morocco.
According to their testimonies, four Afghan victims aged 16 to 24 crossed the border and were detained by Croatian police. They were transported on October 14 to an unknown location in Croatia and handed over to 10 armed people, dressed in black with their faces fully covered with balaclavas.
They were ordered to strip down to their underwear and their belongings were set on fire. They were ordered to lie on the ground, face down.
“Midway during the beating, one of the men in black penetrated M.K’s anus forcefully with a branch. The penetration was done over the underwear. During this particular moment, the rest of the men in black were laughing,” DRC said, referring to the 24-year-old Afghan.
Croatian authorities continued to beat the victim all over for about eight minutes. The penetration caused bleeding.
After the victims pushed to retreat to Bosnia, a doctor who examined them in Bihac said what had been inflicted on them amounted to “severe injuries”.
A spokesperson from Croatia’s Ministry of Interior told Al Jazeera its border police has been accused of inhumane treatment “without providing any kind of facts, proof or at least basic information which could be verified”.
“Once these accusations were made, the Ministry of the Interior certainly initiated urgent procedures to verify the allegations since it is our objective and in our interest to, on one hand, remove any suspicion of actions taken by Croatian police officers, and, on the other hand, sanction and eliminate irregularities if, by chance, any have occurred,” the spokesperson said.
In an email to Al Jazeera, Charlotte Slente, secretary-general of DRC, called the claims “horrifying”.
“We need to see action to put a stop to the systematic use of violence. Treating human beings like this, inflicting severe pain and causing unnecessary suffering, irrespective of their migratory status, cannot and should not be accepted by any European country, or by any EU institution,” Slente said.
“There is an urgent need to ensure that independent border monitoring mechanisms are in place to prevent these abuses, and to ensure that all reports of abuse are transparently and credibly investigated – and those responsible are held to account.”
‘Naked and beaten’
Refugees and migrants recounted to DRC that after being caught and detained by Croatian police, they had their valuables confiscated – mobile phones, power banks and hundreds of euros.
Like the four Afghans, others said they were ordered to strip naked and saw their essential belongings, including shoes, jackets and backpacks, thrown into a fire.
Beatings were described as “severe” with Croatian authorities using metal batons, wooden sticks, belts and their fists to beat them.
They used their boots to kick them, not watching which part of their bodies were hit, according to the testimonies.
In some instances, a Croatian official would immobilise the refugee by standing on his neck while the victim endured the beating.
In other testimonies, police were said to have taken selfies with naked victims or ordered naked refugees to lie on the ground next to and on top each other to be beaten.
One refugee from Balochistan said: “We lay next to each other, naked and beaten and the other four were ordered to lie on us, like when trees are stacked, so we lay motionless for 20 minutes.”
These testimonies all correspond to a section of the Bosnian-Croatian border in the jurisdiction of the Cetingrad Border Police Station pic.twitter.com/h0fldqPPer
— Border Violence Monitoring Network (@Border_Violence) October 21, 2020
A refugee from Balochistan said a child refugee who was beaten fainted, and was then beaten again.
“A minor … fainted after many blows. His friends took him in their arms and one of the police officers ordered them to lay him down, on the ground. Then, they started hitting them with batons.
“The minor soon regained consciousness and the officers ordered him to get up on his own.
“Before the deportation, police told us, ‘We don’t care where you are from and whether you will return to Bosnia or to your country, but you will not go to Croatia. Now you have all your arms and legs because we were careful how we hit you and next time it will be much worse’.”
Medical teams operating at Miral camp in Velika Kladusa, western Bosnia, said these victims suffered the most severe injuries they have witnessed to date.
One victim was hospitalised as his calf bone was fractured; he had to undergo surgery.
Another victim’s nose was broken.
‘Tacitly encouraged by the EU’
The Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN), a network of NGOs in the Balkan regions, published an investigation on Wednesday, corroborating DRC’s findings.
Since October 3, BVMN records show 36 people were pushed back from Croatia, with “extreme physical assaults” involved in each incident in the Cetingrad area, BVMN spokesman Jack Sapoch told Al Jazeera.
Sapcoh noted that, according to the Croatian Interior Ministry, Damir Butina of the Karlovac police station which has jurisdiction over Cetingrad, spoke last month at a training event for 36 new Croatian border police leaders on “Frontex certified” border procedures.
Human rights groups have previously questioned Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, saying it was failing to respect its mandate to ensure the protection of human rights.
“This is only one of many examples of how this violence is tacitly encouraged by the European Union, which has supplied the Croatian state with hundreds of millions of euros of technological equipment to secure the EU’s external border in the last decade,” Sapoch said.
Clare Daly, an Irish MEP, has raised the alarm over refugee abuse in parliament in Brussels.
European values? What European values?? The blood of these people, so horrifically mistreated on the Croatian border, is on the hands of @EU_Commission. When are people going to be held to account for the sickening crimes against migrants happening daily in Croatia? @DRC_ngo pic.twitter.com/mrrxWFohaD
— Clare Daly (@ClareDalyMEP) October 21, 2020
Daly told Al Jazeera that that the fact that the EU was informed of the abuse previously and yet continued to finance Croatian border authorities makes the EU just as responsible “as those who carried out these atrocious actions”.
“It exposes the nonsense that we hear from the commission about European values… We have been given the run-around by the commission, who have ignored our evidence and continued to financially reward the Croatian authorities in the full knowledge that they had not established a human rights monitoring mechanism which they had been required to do so under the funding they were given,” Daly said.
“In possession of this knowledge the commission not only didn’t reprimand them, but gave them an even bigger grant the next time.”
Dunja Mijatovic, commissioner for human rights at the Council of Europe, late on Wednesday called the allegations “extremely worrying” and called on Croatian authorities to stop pushbacks and border violence, and end impunity for human rights violations.
“Disturbingly, these reports suggest that violence and dehumanising acts accompanying pushbacks are increasing, and it seems that Croatian law enforcement officers continue to enjoy impunity for such serious human rights violations,” Mijatovic wrote on Facebook, noting she had called on authorities to conduct an investigation two years ago.