Croatian police beats, robs people while guarding EU borders

5. syyskuuta 2018, Ilkka Karisto

The Croatian police are sending back migrants at night. Those who have been turned away told Long Play of how they were beaten, had their money stolen and their phones smashed by the police.

VELIKA KLADUŠA / BIHAĆ. The police of Croatia, an EU Member State, has repeatedly brutalised and robbed migrants entering the country without authorisation, indicate interviews conducted by Long Play.

The migrants have stated that the beatings take place at night, while the Croatian police are taking them back to Bosnia outside official border crossing points. Long Play’s sources in the Red Cross and the Bosnian police have confirmed these claims.

Ali Ibraham, 42, hailing from the Kurdish area in Iraq, recounted his failed attempt to cross the Croatian border in the city of Velika Kladuša in Bosnia. He had crossed the border together with his 16-year-old brother and a cousin. The three walked through forests for eight days, making it nearly to the border zone between Croatia and Slovenia, until being caught on 23 August.

“The police fired one warning shot into the air, and then told us to get on the ground,” says Ibraham. “One of the police kicked my brother who was sitting on the ground. I asked him to stop. I shouted that he is a child – hit me instead. The policeman screamed at me: ‘Shut up!’”

The men were taken to the police station and from there to the Bosnian border. There, the police told them to get out of the car one by one. According to Ibraham, the Croatian police attacked his brother after they got out of the car.

“One hit him on the back of his knee with a baton, and then another hit him on the back. I shouted at them to stop, we’re not animals.”

Ibrahim has a broken prosthesis on his left leg. He has tried to repair it with duct tape. Ibrahim says that the police removed his prosthesis and stomped on it on the ground so that the attachment broke. His younger brother, Murad Ibraham, says that the police threatened to rape and kill him if they see him on the Croatian side of the border again.

LAST WEEK, Long Play interviewed 32 people in Bosnia, all of whom had crossed the border to Croatia and had been returned back to Bosnia.

Of them, 19 claimed to have been brutalised by the Croatian police while being sent back. Two of the interviewees describing police violence were minors.

Eight people showed Long Play injuries which they claimed had resulted from beatings perpetrated by Croatian police.

The migrants also told of the Croatian police systematically breaking their phones, presenting smartphones with smashed screens and broken charger ports. (Migrants moving between countries often use maps on their smartphones to navigate).

The interviewees explained that the Croatian police had also taken their portable chargers during the process. Many said the police had stolen money, up to €700, from them.

In theory, Croatia should allow migrants to apply for asylum in the country, even though most of them hope to travel onwards into western Europe, and would prefer to refrain from any contact with Croatian authorities to avoid having their asylum case processed in the country.

Hussein Alissa, fleeing Isis in Syria, was cooking bean stew for herself and her nine-year-old son in Velika Kladuša on 28 August. They had been turned back from Croatia the day before. According to Alissa, the police took 700 euros, her passport and her Syrian ID from her. Photo: Ilkka Karisto.
Hussein Alissa, fleeing Isis in Syria, was cooking bean stew for herself and her nine-year-old son in Velika Kladuša on 28 August. They had been turned back from Croatia the day before. According to Alissa, the police took 700 euros, her passport and her Syrian ID from her. Photo: Ilkka Karisto.

THE CROATIAN MINISTRY OF THE INTERIOR declined to comment on the actions of the police on the phone and requested that the questions be submitted to them in writing. (The Ministry replied 11 days later.)

International aid organisations working in Bosnia hear claims of excessive force used by the Croatian police nearly every day.

“Migrants tell us about the beatings, but we have no way of verifying their claims. We do not monitor the border. It is outside our jurisdiction,” says Amira Hadžimehmedović, coordinator of the Bihać office of IOM, the UN’s migration organisation.

Abdulah Budimlić, head of the Red Cross in Bihać, says that he can neither confirm nor deny any claims of police brutality.

“I don’t know what happens at the border. All I have to go on is what the migrants tell me.”

However, two Red Cross employees told Long Play anonymously that the violence of the Croatian police is obvious.

“The migrants come back from the border beaten up. They can’t all have tripped and fallen in the forest,” one of them points out.

Another employee mentions a case where a pregnant woman returned from the border with her husband, saying that they had been beaten by the Croatian police. They both had bruises on their body, and the woman’s injuries caused her to miscarry.

“It’s impossible that those injuries would have resulted from fighting among the migrants.”

One Bosnian policeman who works in the border region confirmed to Long Play that the Croatian police are using illegal methods. He wanted to remain anonymous.

Long Play has also seen a copy of a report drafted by the Bosnian police which describes the “excessive force” used by the Croatian police and mentions phones being smashed. Dated in early August, the report had been sent to Sarajevo to the Bosnian Ministry of Security, which is responsible for migrant affairs.

Algerian Akrem Souri, 44, says that the Croatian police hit him in the sides and the legs with a metal bar on 24 August. Souri was detained near the town of Slunj, about ten kilometres from the Bosnian border. Photo: Ilkka Karisto.
Algerian Akrem Souri, 44, says that the Croatian police hit him in the sides and the legs with a metal bar on 24 August. Souri was detained near the town of Slunj, about ten kilometres from the Bosnian border. Photo: Ilkka Karisto.

DURING THE PAST SPRING and summer, the “Balkan route” taken by thousands of migrants to western Europe has shifted to pass through Bosnia. The previously more popular route via Serbia to Croatia is less used now since Serbia intensified its border surveillance.

Bosnian authorities do not usually prevent people from crossing the border outside the official border crossing points.

In Bosnia, most migrants have congregated in the north-western corner of the country, in the towns of Bihać and Velika Kladuša, because they are close to the Croatian border.

“Since the beginning of this year, we have registered 5,893 migrants in the Una-Sana Canton. The number doubled during the summer,” says Šero Družić, police commissioner of Una-Sana Canton.

This figure is based on identity inspections conducted by the police on the streets and on public transportation. In reality, it is likely that a significantly larger number of migrants have entered the area. Most of them have succeeded in continuing their journey northward.

“Every night, dozens of people manage to cross the border,” says Police Commissioner Družić to Long Play. “The ones who are returned will keep trying again and again.”

Družić confirms the claims that Croatia returns the migrants they detain outside the official border crossing points, and usually at night. He says Croatia does not inform Bosnian authorities of deportations beforehand, even though the two countries have a contract requiring it.

Družić is curt in his comments on the violent behaviour of the Croatian police.

“We are aware of this. But we cannot intervene.”

The first reports of the brutality of the Croatian police were released on the Facebook page and blog of No Name Kitchen, an NGO helping migrants in Velika Kladuša.

BOSNIA AND CROATIA share approximately one thousand kilometres of border, which mainly meanders along sparsely populated mountainous and forested areas. However, at Velika Kladuša, habitation nearly reaches the border. Seven people who live in the immediate vicinity of the border stated that they have heard sounds of abuse and cries of pain from the border on several nights.

“We could hear the screams very clearly on our yard, and there is no doubt about what was causing them,” says one inhabitant, a man in his fifties, on his backyard which offers an unobstructed view to Croatia. The border runs approximately one hundred metres further, along the bottom of a valley, and immediately behind it is a road which the Croatian police patrols day and night.  

This man – like all other inhabitants of the border area – would only talk to Long Play anonymously, as he was afraid that the Croatian officials would cause trouble for him.

The man and his neighbours had heard sounds of beatings dozens of times, typically between midnight and two in the morning. According to them, the Croatian police usually brings the migrants to the border with three vans.

“The doors open and the motor shuts down. Soon the beatings and screams begin. It’s terrible to hear,” says a middle-aged woman who lives close to the border.

She recounts one night two months earlier, when she and her husband saw migrants dragging three companions up a steep slope which leads to their house. The couple had gone out to see what was happening. They say that the men were unconscious.

Other migrants said that the men had been given electric shocks by the Croatian police. The couple called an ambulance, which arrived from the nearby town of Velika Kladuša.

The couple played Long Play a short video clip of that night. In the video, three seemingly unconscious men are lying on the ground, surrounded by a busy group of paramedics. (Long Play was unable to verify the authenticity of the video).

Senad Okanović, the director of the hospital in Velika Kladuša, would not comment on the video or on the story told by the couple. Neither would he disclose whether ambulances had been dispatched from the hospital to the Croatian border.  

“I cannot comment on individual cases in any way,” says Okanović.

However, he did present statistics on the care provided to migrants. According to these statistics, 31 of the migrants seeking care at Velika Kladuša hospital claimed that their injuries had resulted from violence perpetrated by the Croatian police.

Three of the cases had been classified as severe.

According to Okanović, the migrants and some of the aid workers assisting them tend to exaggerate the amount of injuries inflicted by Croatian police.

“But I do not believe the Croatian Ministry of the Interior, which claims that there is no violence at all,” he adds. “Neither would I claim that the Croatian police is not breaking migrants’ phones or stealing their money.”

CROATIA WAS ACCEPTED AS A MEMBER STATE of the EU five years ago, and now the country is eagerly vying for accession into the Schengen area. The most important criterion for Schengen membership is dependable border control.

Last week, Andrej Plenković, the Prime Minister of Croatia, met with Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel in Berlin. At the press conference, Merkel praised Croatia’s border control.

You are doing a great job on the borders, and I wish to commend you for that,she said.

Meanwhile in Bosnia, hundreds of people were preparing to cross the border. No one seemed interested in staying in Bosnia to wait for the autumn and winter, as the authorities cannot provide migrants with anything resembling adequate housing.

In Bihać, most migrants have been living in a former student dormitory which was badly bombed during the Bosnian war (1992–1995) and which has remained empty ever since. The building does not have a single unbroken window. The floor has several dangerous holes, and the steep stairs have no railing. Hundreds of people are sleeping in the building – among them, approximately 50 children, including infants. Open fires have been made in the living areas, and some are using plastic trash as kindling.

The conditions in Velika Kladuša are even more dire. There, most of the migrants hoping for entry into western Europe are sleeping in tents on a small, muddy clearing on the edge of town. At the end of August, between two and three hundred people were staying at the camp. A month earlier, there were approximately 500. There is no electricity or warm water. The camp has six portable toilets, which smell horrifying. Most people prefer to use the bushes around the camp instead.

“These are prime conditions for disease,” says Senad Okanović from the hospital in Velika Kladuša. “And epidemics don’t respect national borders.”

Translation by Emma Voutilainen.

Long Play is a Finnish digital publication of long-form, investigative journalism.