Migrants also speak of phones damaged or being taunted but Croatian authorities deny allegations
People at a makeshift camp near Velika Kladuša in Bosnia, a stop for migrants looking to head to Croatia. Photograph: Ana Opalic/Guardian
The lucky ones escaped with only their mobile phones smashed. Those less fortunate say they were beaten with sticks, taunted or attacked with dogs. Many allege they had large sums of money stolen.
According to the testimony of migrants and monitoring groups, the Croatian police force is engaging in a systematic campaign of violence and theft against migrants and refugees attempting to find a route to western Europe through the country.
The Guardian spoke to dozens of men in the Bosnian border towns of Velika Kladuša and Bihać, who said they had been subjected to violence at the hands of Croatian police after crossing into the country. Most women interviewed said they had not been targeted, but had witnessed attacks on men in their groups, although a minority of women said they had been beaten or strip-searched.
Many people had mobile phones with mangled charger sockets and cracked screens, damage caused by the Croatian police, they said. Others said police had stolen their phones and large sums of money. In all cases, Croatian police drove people back to the border in the night and pushed them back to Bosnia.
“Ten days ago they took all our money,” said Chouaïb, 30, from Algeria, who like others gave only his first name. “More than €1,000. They ripped up my passport, and then started beating us with batons. You risk your life in the hills. You don’t sleep. Maybe you die. OK, the police catch you and send you back, that would be normal. But why do they beat us? Why do they humiliate us?”
Karolina Augustova, a volunteer with the NGO No Name Kitchen in Velika Kladuša, who has been taking testimonies from people deported back to Bosnia by Croatian police in the past two months, said there were between 50 and 100 people pushed back per week, and that is just in the vicinity of Velika Kladuša.
“The vast majority have been robbed or had their phones damaged, and between 60 and 70% of them report police violence,” she said. In recent weeks, the NGO has documented multiple cases of serious injuries that appear to have been inflicted with police batons.
Last year, there were fewer than 1,000 migrant arrivals to Bosnia, but this year the Balkan country has seen at least 9,000.
Most of them are from Afghanistan, Iran and Syria, and the majority have been on the road for two or three years, often spending time stranded in Turkey or Serbia and determined to press on to their final destination, which for most is Germany. As other routes to western Europe have been closed off, Croatian police have emerged as the EU’s gatekeepers.
In Velika Kladuša, a makeshift field camp on the outskirts of the town is home to about 400 people. Basic tents made from wooden sticks and tarpaulin provide temporary shelter for those planning a crossing, and those arriving back from violent returns.
A refugees shows the cracked screen of his mobile phone at a camp in Velika Kladuša. Photograph: Ana Opalic/Guardian
In nearby Bihać, about 1,000 people are living, 30 to a room, in the concrete shell of a half-built building, left uncompleted by the Bosnian war. Most people are veterans of several failed attempts at “the game”, as attempting the crossing is known colloquially.
Croatia’s border with Bosnia stretches for several hundred miles and is porous, but getting across the border is just the start of the game.
Those without the €2,500 (£2,228) smugglers charge for the trip to Italy spend a week or more walking, sleeping in the day and moving by night, attempting to stay inside forested areas and avoiding roads and villages. Often, they are found by Croatian police close to the border with Slovenia, driven to the Bosnian border and unceremoniously shoved back.
Others die on the route. On Sunday, Croatian police said they had found two bodies believed to be of migrants in a dense forest near the town of Karlovac, without specifying their nationalities or cause of death.
Some people make it all the way to Slovenia, only to be returned by Slovenian police to Croatia, and then to Bosnia. One group of Afghan men said Slovenian police had attacked them with dogs before handing them back to Croatia, showing a number of puncture marks on their skin and mangled fabric on their rucksacks.
Azam, a 39-year-old from Afghanistan, spent 13 days walking through the forests with his 10-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son in the most recent of multiple attempts to make it from Bosnia to Italy.
“We ran out of food and water, so we had to come into the open, we were starving and exhausted,” he said. A Croatian woman they encountered, concerned for the children, gave him some money and water, and explained they were only five kilometres from the border with Slovenia, pointing them in the right direction.
But someone else had spotted them on the road and called the police, Azam believes, and 15 minutes later, they were picked up and taken to a police station, where they were held in a cell. That night, they were driven back to the border and shoved across at an unmarked location, left to find their way through the forests back to the Velika Kladuša camp. It had taken them nearly two weeks to walk the distance; it took just over an hour for them to be driven back. Azam says police stole his last money – €400 – at the border.
The vast majority of those interviewed by the Guardian reported theft by Croatian police. “Last time, they took four telephones and one power bank from our group, they just stole them,” said a 48-year-old woman from Afghanistan, who did not want to give her name.
“They beat the men but not the women. But when I started shouting to give me my phone back, they hit me on the back of the head as well. The Croatian police are mafia, there are no other words for it. They were laughing, and shouting at us to go home.”
Migrants occupy a building in Bihać left uncompleted after the Bosnian war. Photograph: Ana Opalic/Guardian
It is difficult to verify every allegation of police brutality.
Croatia is not part of the Schengen zone of free movement inside the EU, but hopes to accede to it soon, and as such is keen to prove it can police the EU’s external border. In a statement, the Croatian interior ministry told the Guardian that the country’s police force always respected the “fundamental rights and dignity of migrants”.
The ministry accused the migrants of carrying weapons, and inflicting injuries on themselves. “Recent media reporting from Bosnia-Herzegovina and official reports made by their national police clearly show that in that area migrants come into conflicts and injure one another,” read the statement.
An employee of an international organisation not authorised to speak publicly, who has spent several months in the field, said: “Maybe not every story is true, but every day there are new stories, and there are just too many reports of violence to ignore it.”
Asked if the Croatian police were systematically using violence, Husein Kučić, the head of the Red Cross in Bosnia’s Una-Sana canton, said: “We can’t say with 100% certainty in each case, but based on what I’ve seen, the answer is yes.”
Rahim, 38, from Afghanistan
Every country we have been in we have had problems with police, but nothing like Croatian police. I don’t mind which country we end up in. My daughter is sick, I just want to take her somewhere with good doctors. We don’t have any money so we can’t pay smugglers. We are just walking, walking, walking every time in the night. Last time, we were five days in the forest, but then the police stopped us at the end. They took €180 from me and sent us back. This time they didn’t hit me. They have beaten me twice out of five attempts.
Azam, 39, Afghanistan
I have lost count of how many times I have played the game. I have been beaten and robbed, in front of my children. We are educated people, I am from an educated family, and we are being treated like animals by the Croatian police. My daughter is 11 and this is no place for a child. I am a man and I should not cry, but my heart is broken. If I didn’t have children, I would have killed myself long ago, this is too much for me.
Leila, 45, Iran
I have tried five or six times to cross into Croatia, every time they have caught me. Once they lied to me, they said I could stay for 21 days if I signed some papers at the police station, so I did. Then they took my photograph, drove me back to the border, and let me out. They stole my last €150 and my telephone. I have paid thousands of euros and I have been travelling for two years. I have two daughters here with me and I don’t know what to do.
Abed, 43, Pakistan
I spent five years in Britain, working in a paper factory in Blackburn, but my work permit ran out and I went back to Pakistan in 2009. There is nothing for me to do in my home town, I want to get to Spain where my brother is. I have been travelling for six months and have only been on the game once, two weeks ago. There were eight of us: six men and two women. We walked for five nights. Then they caught us, and beat us with sticks, shouting that we should never come back. Now I am really scared.Since you’re here…
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