Dispatch

Croatia Is Abusing Migrants While the EU Turns a Blind Eye

The evidence of Croatian police violence toward migrants is overwhelming, but Brussels continues to praise and fund Zagreb for patrolling the European Union’s longest external land border.

A migrant walks among tents at the Vucjak camp on the outskirts of Bihac in Bosnia and Herzegovinia on  Nov. 20.
A migrant walks among tents at the Vucjak camp on the outskirts of Bihac in Bosnia and Herzegovinia on Nov. 20. Amel Emric/NurPhoto via Getty Images

BIHAC, Bosnia and Herzegovina—Cocooned in a mud-spattered blanket, thousands of euros in debt, and with a body battered and bruised, Faisal Abas has reached the end of the line, geographically and spiritually. A year after leaving Pakistan to seek greener pastures in Europe, his dreams have died in a rain-sodden landfill site in northern Bosnia. His latest violent expulsion from Croatia was the final straw.

“We were just a few kilometers over the border when we were caught on the mountainside. They wore black uniforms and balaclavas and beat us one by one with steel sticks,” he recalled. “I dropped to the ground and they kicked me in the belly. Now, I can’t walk.”

Vucjak has become the latest squalid purgatory for Europe’s largely forgotten migrant crisis as tens of thousands escaping war and poverty cross over the Croatian border—a process wryly nicknamed “the game.”

Faisal rolled up his trousers to reveal several purple bruises snaking up his shins and thighs. He has begun seeking information on how to repatriate himself. “If I die here, then who will help my family back home?” he said.

The tented wasteland outside the Bosnian city of Bihac has become a dumping ground for single male migrants that the struggling authorities have no room to accommodate and don’t want hanging around the city. Bhangra music blasts out of a tinny speaker, putrid smoke billows from fires lit inside moldy tents, and men traipse in flip-flops into the surrounding woods to defecate, cut off from any running water or sanitation.

A former landfill, ringed by land mines from the Yugoslav wars, the hamlet of Vucjak has become the latest squalid purgatory for Europe’s largely forgotten migrant crisis as thousands escaping war and poverty use it as a base camp to cross over the Croatian border—a process wryly nicknamed “the game.”

The game’s unsuccessful players have dark stories to tell. A young Pakistani named Ajaz recently expelled from Croatia sips soup from a plastic bowl and picks at his split eyebrow. “They told us to undress and we were without shoes, socks, or jackets. They took our money, mobiles and bags with everything inside it, made a fire and burnt them all in front of us. Then they hit me in the eye with a steel stick,” he said. “They beat everyone, they didn’t see us as humans.”

A migrant arrives at the Vucjak camp in Bosnia and Herzegovina with blood on his jacket on Oct. 31. Many migrants say they have been beaten by Croatian police while attempting to cross the Croatian-Bosnian border.

A migrant arrives at the Vucjak camp in Bosnia and Herzegovina with blood on his jacket on Oct. 31. Many migrants say they have been beaten by Croatian police while attempting to cross the Croatian-Bosnian border. Andrew Connelly

Mohammad, sitting beside his compatriot, pipes up: “Last week we were with two Arabic girls when the Croatian police caught us. The girls shouted to them ‘sorry, we won’t come back,’ but they didn’t listen, they beat them on their back and chest with sticks.”

Down the hill in Bihac, in a drafty former refrigerator factory turned refugee facility, a metal container serves as a quarantine area for the infectious and infirm. Mohammad Bilal, a scrawny 16-year-old, lies on a lower bunk with his entire leg draped in flimsy bandage. Three weeks ago, at the cusp of winning the game and crossing into Italy, he was seized in Slovenia and then handed back to Croatia. That’s when the violence began.

A nearby Bosnian camp guard grimaced and wondered out loud: “Imagine how hard you have to hit someone to break a bone.”

“They drove us in a van to the Bosnian border and took us out one at a time,” he said, describing the Croatian police. “There were eight police, and one by one they beat us, punching, kicking, hitting with steel sticks. They broke my leg.”

A nearby Bosnian camp guard grimaced and wondered out loud: “Imagine how hard you have to hit someone to break a bone.”

Among the fluctuating migrant population of 7,000 thought to be in the area, vivid descriptions of violent episodes are being retold every day. The allegations have been mounting over the last two years, since Bosnia became a new branch in the treacherous Balkan migratory route into Europe. Denunciations of Croatian border policy have come from Amnesty International, the Council of Europe, Human Rights Watch, and a United Nations special rapporteur. Officials in Serbia have even alleged “physical and psychological torture” by Croatia’s police forces.

In November 2018, the Guardian published a video shot by a migrant in which haunting screams can be heard before a group of migrants emerge from the darkness wild-eyed and bloodied. A month later, activists secretly filmed Croatian police marching lines of migrants back into Bosnian territory.

Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic has said that “a little bit of force is needed when doing pushbacks.”

Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic even appeared to let the cat out of the bag in an interview with the Swiss broadcaster Schweizer Radio und Fernsehen, during which she remarked that “a little bit of force is needed when doing pushbacks.” Despite the videos showing injured migrants, explicit video evidence of Croatian officials carrying out actual beatings has never been seen, and migrants report that one of the first commands by border guards is to surrender mobile phones, which are then either taken or destroyed before a thorough search is performed.

The abuse appears to be rampant. Both the violence and humiliation—migrants are often forced to undress and walk back across the border to Bosnia half-naked for several hours in freezing temperatures—seem to be used as a deterrent to stop them from returning. And yet the European Union is arguably not only facilitating but rewarding brute force by a member state in the name of protecting its longest land border.

In December 2018, the European Commission announced that it was awarding 6.8 million euros to Croatia to “strengthen border surveillance and law enforcement capacity,” including a “monitoring mechanism” to ensure that border measures are “proportionate and are in full compliance with fundamental rights and EU asylum laws.”

According to European Commission sources, a sum of 300,000 euros was earmarked for the mechanism, but they could not assess its outcome until Croatia files a report due in early 2020. Details of oversight remain vague. A spokesperson for the United Nations refugee agency in Croatia told Foreign Policy that the agency has no involvement. The Croatian Law Center, another major nongovernmental organization, also confirmed it has no role in the mechanism. It appears to be little more than a fig leaf.

Croatia is the EU’s 28th and newest member, joining in 2013. Ever since, it has been keen to join the bloc’s coveted Schengen Area—the club of countries which have abolished internal border controls for its members. For a country with more than 1,000 miles of Adriatic coastline and a tourism sector comprising one-fifth of gross domestic product, removing border controls for visitors from Schengen countries and tourists on Schengen visas could be very lucrative.

Schengen membership requires that certain standards be met, among them human rights protection for migrants and refugees. In October 2019, in its assessment of Croatia’s eligibility on this matter, the European Commission deemed that the country “continues to fulfil its commitment.”

A month after that announcement, Croatian police near the coastal city of Rijeka opened fire on a migrant traveling with a group. He was taken to a hospital with life-threatening injuries. Ten days later, another migrant was injured by Croatian police gunfire in the Gorski Kotar mountain region.

This week, local media reported that two Nigerian table tennis players visiting the Croatian capital, Zagreb, for an international sports competition were picked up in mid-November by police and deported at gunpoint to a Bosnian camp, despite both men holding valid visas.

Migrants line up to receive aid at the Vucjak camp on Nov. 21.

Migrants line up to receive aid at the Vucjak camp on Nov. 21. Kayhan Gul/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

In an email, the Croatian Ministry of the Interior did not address any of Foreign Policy’s specific questions but instead linked to a lengthy response it issued to a Human Rights Watch report from early November, in which it argued that the allegations of violence “do not contain sufficient information needed for criminal investigation.” It also claimed that migrants falsely accuse police officers of violence “expecting such accusations to assist them in making a new attempt to enter.”

Lora Vidovic, Croatia’s own public ombudswoman, does not even know if her country is obeying the law. In an email, her office said that the Ministry of Interior is blocking her access to data.

Near the Vucjak landfill, the medical charity Doctors Without Borders runs a small clinic opposite a church where sick and wounded migrants line up every day. Such is the sheer number and pattern of the reports that the project coordinator, Miroslav Ilic, believes the violence to be systemic and contends that the EU is complicit in a policy designed to render migrants physically incapable of crossing the border.

“This kind of violence is chronic, pathological, and has a severe impact on people’s physical and mental health,” said Ilic. “Our teams have been treating highly distressed patients with broken bones, dog bites, and head wounds. These are consequences of EU containment policy and violent management of borders.”

Lora Vidovic, Croatia’s own public ombudswoman, does not even know if her country is obeying the law. In an email, her office said that the Ministry of Interior is blocking her access to data.

“As long as such investigations are not undertaken … we cannot be assured that Croatia is acting in compliance with international and EU law, including the fundamental rights that are also included in the Schengen Border Code,” said Maja Kevic, the d eputy ombudswoman.

The picture is bleak, although murmurs of discomfort are beginning to surface from within the ranks of Croatia’s police.In July, Vidovic, so frustrated by repeated obstruction by the Ministry of the Interior over mounting abuse allegations, went public with a letter she claimed was sent by an anonymous police officer.

He confirmed the practice of beatings, theft, and pushbacks, all “with the blessing of the chiefs of the police station and the headquarters.” He expressed remorse over his part, saying that fear of being fired prevents him refusing orders but that “there are a few of us that no longer have the will or strength to watch what is being done to these people.”

A social worker in Bihac—who asked to remain anonymous, citing security concerns—described the recent testimony of a Syrian father who was caught and pushed back by Croatian police one night with his sick 9-year-old daughter and three others. They were made to lie on the ground and surrender their documents and phones.

“One guy in their group told the police he didn’t have a phone. But they searched him, found it, and started beating the hell out of him. While this was happening, a male policeman handed back the father his daughter’s medical documents. He saw that the officer was crying.”

The social worker paused.

“The father was shocked that a policeman would show his emotions in a situation like that … but it gave them a weird kind of hope.”

Andrew Connelly is a journalist covering migration, politics, and human rights. Twitter: @connellyandrew

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