Croatian civil society initiatives Are You Syrious? and the Welcome! Initiative issued a third report this year on alleged violence inflicted by Croatian police against persons trying to cross the Serbian border in order to seek asylum in Croatia. Similar accusations were made by a number of international NGOs – Human Rights Watch, Doctors Without Borders (MSF), Doctors of the World (MDM), OXFAM, Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) and UNHCR Serbia.
The two civil society initiatives already published two “Reports on Unlawful and Forceful Push-backs of Refugees from the Republic of Croatia” on 24th January and 7th March 2017. The initiatives claim that the publicly available reports and privately received complaints, witness testimonies and other material show that there has recently been a significant increase in the number of unlawful expulsions from the country and an escalation in violence near Croatian borders.
According to the UNHCR report for Serbia, 262 people temporarily residing in Serbia reported that they were denied the right to seek asylum in Croatia in April. According to their data, 246 people were expelled from Croatia during the same month.
They also reported that the number of group expulsions doubled in the week from 15th to 21st May compared to the previous week and that many refugees testify that Croatian police denies them the right to claim asylum and uses excessive force.
The same was recently reported by the international organization Doctors Without Borders, which continuously works with refugees in Serbia. They warned about a recent “dramatic increase in violence” on the Croatian side of the border. More and more refugees contact them each day in search of medical assistance and some claim that they were beaten by groups of Croatian police officers on the Croatian border. Medical documentation issued by the organization confirms that the injuries sustained correspond to the injuries one would have if hit by sticks or fists, or kicked.
Doctors Without Borders were joined by Doctors of the World to warn the public last Friday that this was a continuous problem which escalated in the days preceding their public statement. Doctors Without Borders coordinator for Serbia said the following: “The violence always takes the same form: baton hits, destruction of mobile phones, money theft.” A group of volunteer doctors who also provide first aid to refugees in Šid said that there is a wave of violence every few days, when they have many injured, some with serious injuries.
In the last two weeks, Croatian initiatives have been receiving daily individual reports from refugees, volunteers and others on forceful push-backs from Croatia, denial of the right to seek asylum in Croatia, police confiscation of property (mobile phones, money, etc.) and, most of all, serious physical violence against persons from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Algeria and other countries. The reports and witness testimonies reference the same pattern, according to which Croatian police officers transport refugees found further inland to a place near the border area, where they allegedly transfer them to a van which then takes them to a place at the border. There, they are allegedly taken out of the van one by one, after which they are hit and kicked, often with sticks and belts.
In one testimony from the report (documented in the enclosed medical report), the witness claims that during the night on 18th May, a group of refugees was stopped by the police near Vukovar. Even though they allegedly expressed intention to seek asylum in Croatia, the police transferred them closer to the border with Serbia. According to the testimony, there they were met by seven police officers who transferred them to another vehicle where they held them for two hours. The police officers then reportedly beat them “like animals”, one by one, each for three to four minutes, using boots, wooden sticks and police batons. The witness further claims that they were then pushed face-down into a water-filled ditch. They were also allegedly hit on the head. The testimony ends with a claim (found in multiple other reports) that the police officers then confiscated some of their personal belongings, mobile phones and money.
All of this follows a report issued on Friday about a case of five unaccompanied minors who were residing in one of the homes for children and youth and who tried to flee Croatia on two occasions in May. According to the minors’ testimonies, the police slapped and hit them the first time and took them to the police station the second time, where police employees allegedly slapped them, hit them, pointed a gun to their heads and threatened them in order to get information on smugglers.
Based on these testimonies and reports, civil society organizations warned against serious forms of psychological, physical and other abuse allegedly arising out of unlawful conduct of Croatian police and deemed Croatia as one of the more dangerous land points on the map of forced and hidden movements of people. Among other things, they call for an immediate cessation of violence against refugees in Croatia, access to the asylum system, an immediate investigation into police conduct and civil oversight at borders.
They also ask that all those who still wish to claim asylum in Croatia be returned, since the right to seek asylum is guaranteed under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The declaration does not guarantee that asylum will be granted, but that it can be sought and asylum claims must be processed (with a positive or negative outcome) after one has expressed intention to seek asylum.
The full report in Croatian, as well as medical documentation and images of bruises, can be found here.