Swiss public broadcaster SRF aired a television report on Wednesday evening showing footage of Croatian border police escorting incoming migrants across the border back into Bosnia and Herzegovina. It also includes testimonials of migrants interviewed in Bosnia who said they were violently pushed back after they had been caught in Croatia.
The footage, filmed in late April this year, shows a group of some 30 migrants transported in a Croatian police van to a point on the Bosnian border near the northwestern Bosnian border town of Velika Kladusa. After stopping near the border point in a forested area, the group, carrying backpacks and blankets, is herded by a police officer, who then leads them to a concrete demarcation block and points instructs them to walk back into Bosnian territory.
Deporting migrants or refugees without giving them a chance to apply for asylum is illegal under both international and Croatian law, and is referred to as 'pushback.'
According to SRF's reporter, Nicole Voegele, her crew documented four cases of police pushback over two days they spent in the area, in which Croatian police expelled at least 70 migrants - mostly hailing from Afghanistan, Algeria, and Pakistan - from Croatia's territory into Bosnia.
Although the expellings caught on film appeared to be non-violent, Swiss reporters also talked to migrants in Bosnia who recounted stories of violence and theft at the hands of Croatian police.
One man from Pakistan told reporters that Croatian border police had caught the group he was travelling with in the woods near the border, forced them into a van, and drove them back to the border with Bosnia. The ride took some two hours, he said.
“Then they took and destroyed our mobile phones, and forced us back across the border,” he said, adding that the Croatian police had also confiscated all the cash that they had carried with them.
An Afghan family with children said that Croatian police had threatened them at gunpoint and refused to accept their request for asylum, and, in violation of international law, forced them to backtrack into Bosnia, mockingly telling them they had been granted “Bosnian asylum.”
Another four migrants they interviewed said that after they had been caught by Slovenian police on the Croatian-Slovenian border, they were handed over to Croatian police, which beat them up and deported back to Bosnia.
"They were brutal, look at the blood," one of them is seen saying, while showing blood stains on his clothes. He said Croatian police had punched them, kicked them, and beaten them with batons, and showed fresh bruises and cuts on his body. The four men are also seen showing their destroyed smartphones, saying that Croatian police had deliberately broken them.
Reporters said that a number of other migrants they had spoken to in Velika Kladusa told them that the Croatian police routinely refused to allow them to apply for asylum.
Allegations of pushbacks pile up
This is not the first time such allegations have been made. Local and international NGOs have previously published a number of reports claiming that Croatian police are engaging in illegal pushbacks of migrants across the Bosnian border. In March this year, Amnesty International said that the EU was complicit in “systematic, unlawful, and frequently violent” pushbacks and expulsions of thousands of asylum seekers from Croatia.
“People fleeing war and persecution are beaten and robbed by the Croatian police, and forcibly pushed back to legal limbo, left at the mercy of a failing asylum system in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” Amnesty International said.
In October last year, the Council of Europe has called on Croatian Interior Ministry to stop collective expulsions and investigate cases of police violence against illegal migrants.
The Interior Ministry has so far denied all accusations of police violence and mistreatment of migrants, claiming that the border police were acting in accordance with Croatian and international law and protecting the border with Bosnia, which is also EU's external border.
On Wednesday, the ministry issued a new press release, denying that the footage depicted illegal deportation and said the scenes filmed showed the practice of "discouraging" migrants from ilegally entering the country.
"The video shows police officers who are carrying out official activities with the aim of discouraging multiple persons from illegal entry who tried to cross the border and illegally enter the EU at a location which is not a designated border crossing point, in conformity with the powers referred to in Article 13 of the Schengen Borders Code. Moreover, the video does not show any use of force whatsoever by police officers against the persons being discouraged," the Interior Ministry said in their statement.
The ministry added that police escort seen is in fact protecting the migrants' lives.
"Given that this is a mine suspected area, on both sides of the border, which is exceptionally dangerous when it comes to crossing the border, the persons encountered by the police are directed to the closest forest road by which they can safely return to the inland territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In doing so, the police protect their lives," the ministry added.
The pressure on the Bosnian-Croatian border has intensified over the past two years - Croatian police figures say some 8,200 illegal border entriew were registered in 2018, or 70 percent up from 2017. To date, some 4,300 illegal border crossing attempts have been registered in 2019.
The migrants, primarily originating from Middle Eastern countries, travel in large numbers along routes from Turkey and Greece through Albania and Bosnia. Once in Bosnia, they often travel to the northwestern part of the country, where they hope to cross across some 50 kilometres across the narrowest part of Croatia's territory to reach Slovenia.
Although Croatia had joined the EU in 2013, it has not yet become a member of the EU's passport-free Schengen travel area, unlike its western neighbour Slovenia, which makes it an attractive destination for migrants hoping they would get to wealthy western European countries.