Croatia: Fresh evidence of police abuse and torture of migrants and asylum-seekers

Croatia: Fresh evidence of police abuse and torture of migrants and asylum-seekers

In a horrifying escalation of police human rights violations at the Croatian border with Bosnia, a group of migrants and asylum seekers was recently bound, brutally beaten and tortured by officers who mocked their injuries and smeared food on their bleeding heads to humiliate them, Amnesty International has revealed today.

Amnesty International spoke to six men among a group of 16 Pakistani and Afghan asylum-seekers who were apprehended by the Croatian police on the night between 26 and 27 May near Lake Plitvice, as they tried to cross the country to reach Western Europe.

Between eight and ten people wearing black uniforms and balaclavas identical to those used by Croatia’s Special Police, fired their weapons in the air, kicked and repeatedly hit the restrained men with metal sticks, batons and pistol grips. They then rubbed ketchup, mayonnaise and sugar that they found in one of the backpacks on migrants’ bleeding heads and hair and their trousers. Amnesty International also spoke to doctors who treated the men and NGOs who witnessed their injuries.

“The European Union can no longer remain silent and wilfully ignore the violence and abuses by Croatian police on its external borders. Their silence is allowing, and even encouraging, the perpetrators of this abuse to continue without consequences. The European Commission must investigate the latest reports of horrifying police violence against migrants and asylum-seekers.” said Massimo Moratti, Deputy Director of the Europe Office, following the latest incident on the Croatian border.

Physical and psychological abuse

Amir from Pakistan told Amnesty: “We were pleading with them to stop and show mercy. We were already tied, unable to move and humiliated; there was no reason to keep hitting us and torturing us.” He said the armed men showed no sympathy. “They were taking photos of us with their phones, and were singing and laughing.” Amir had a broken arm and nose, stiches on the back of his head, and visible bruising all over his face and arms.

Ten men suffered serious injuries that night. Thirty-year-old Tariq now has both of his arms and a leg in a cast, visible cuts and bruises on his head and face and is suffering from severe chest pain.

They did not give us a chance to say anything at all when they caught us. They just started hitting us. While I was lying on the ground, they hit my head with the back of a gun and I started bleeding. I tried to protect my head from the blows, but they started kicking me and hitting my arms with metal sticks. I was passing in and out of consciousness the rest of the night.
Tariq

Tariq is now forced to use a wheelchair to move around and it will take months before he is able to move on his own again. 

The men told Amnesty International how they felt humiliated as militia rubbed mayonnaise and ketchup on to their bloody heads and faces. One masked man squirted mayonnaise on an asylum-seeker’s trousers between his legs, while others laughed and sang “Happy Birthday” around them.

After almost five hours of continuous abuse, the migrants were handed over to the Croatian Border Police who transported them close to the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina in two vans before ordering them to walk. “They were taken aback by our condition. We were drenched in blood and very shook up. We could barely stand, much less walk for hours to Bosnia. But they told us to go. They told us to carry the guys who couldn’t walk and just go.” Faisal told Amnesty.

Some of the men eventually reached Miral, a reception centre run by the International Organization for Migration in Velika Kladusa in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but five, who were too weak to walk, stayed behind and were eventually picked up by an NGO operating in the camp.

An emergency doctor at the medical clinic in Velika Kladusa who treated the men told Amnesty International that they all had injuries on the back of their heads which were consistent with a blow by a blunt object and required stiches. Most had multiple fractures, joint injuries, collapsed lungs, cuts and bruises and several were traumatized. Their recovery could take months.

Routine violent pushbacks and torture by the Croatian police remain unpunished

While only the latest in the series, the incident points to a new level of brutality and abuse by the Croatian police. In early May, the Guardian reported about a group of men who were forced across the Croatian border after being beaten and having orange crosses spray-painted on their heads. The Croatian Ministry of Interior dismissed the allegations, but the testimonies of violence and intimidation fit the trend of unlawful pushbacks taking place not only on the Croatian, but also on other external borders of the European Union.  

Numerous reports over the past three years have revealed how the Croatian border police routinely assault men, women and teenagers trying to enter the country, destroy their belongings and smash their phones before pushing them back to Bosnia. People are sometimes stripped of their clothes and shoes, and forced to walk for hours through snow and freezing cold rivers.

A physician in the Velika Kladusa clinic told Amnesty International that approximately 60 per cent of migrants and asylum-seekers who required medical treatment reported that their injuries were inflicted by the Croatian police, while they were trying to cross the border. “Many injuries involve fractures of long bones and joints. These bones take longer to heal and their fractures render the patient incapacitated for extended periods of time. This appears to be a deliberate strategy – to cause injuries and trauma that take time to heal and would make people more reluctant to try to cross the border again or any time soon,” the physician told Amnesty International.

The Croatian Ministry of Interior has so far dismissed these allegations, refusing to carry out independent and effective investigations into reported abuses or hold its officers to account. In a climate of pervasive impunity, unlawful returns and violence at the border have only escalated. Amnesty International has shared the details of this incident with the Ministry of Interior, but has not received an official response.

The EU’s failure to hold Croatia to account

The European Commission has remained silent in the face of multiple, credible reports of gross human rights abuses at the Croatian border and repeated calls by the European Parliament to investigate the allegations. Furthermore, Croatia remains a beneficiary of nearly EURO 7 million of EU assistance for border security, the vast majority of which is spent on infrastructure, equipping border police and even paying police salaries. Even the small proportion (EURO 300,000) that the Commission had earmarked for a mechanism to monitor that the border measures comply with fundamental rights and EU asylum laws, has been no more than a fig leaf. Last year, the Commission recommended Croatia’s full accession to the Schengen Area despite human rights abuses already being commonplace there.

“The European Commission cannot continue to turn a blind eye to blatant breaches of EU law as people are being branded with crosses on their heads or brutally tortured and humiliated by Croatian police. We expect nothing less than the condemnation of these acts and an independent investigation into reported abuses, as well as the establishment of an effective mechanism to ensure that EU funds are not used to commit torture and unlawful returns.  Failing urgent action, Croatia’s inhumane migration practices will turn the EU into an accomplice in major human rights violations taking place at its doorstep,” said Massimo Moratti.

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Alison Abrahams on alison.abrahams@amnesty.org +32 2 548 27 73 or +32 483 680 812

Background

Photographs of the injuries ©Danish Refugee Council [Note: distressing content]

Violent pushbacks from Croatian border have been a regular occurrence since late 2017. The Danish Refugee Council recorded close to 7,000 cases of forcible deportations and unlawful returns to Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2019, most of which were accompanied by reported violence and intimidation by Croatian police. Despite the brief respite during the lockdown due to COVID-19 pandemic, pushbacks continue with 1600 cases reported only in April. The figures are increasing daily, as the restrictions across the region are being lifted and the weather is turning milder.

Amnesty International has interviewed over 160 people who have been pushed back or returned to Bosnia and Herzegovina since July 2018. Nearly one third reported being beaten, having their documents and telephones stolen, and verbally abused in what appears to be a deliberate policy designed to deter future attempts to enter the country.