Croatian police are allegedly spray-painting crosses on heads of asylum seekers after catching them in their attempts to cross the border into Croatia from Bosnia and Herzegovina, the British daily The Guardian reported on Tuesday.
The newspaper said in its report that it had obtained a number of photographs of what charities in the border area have described as the "latest humiliation" perpetrated by Croatian authorities against migrants and refugees travelling towards Western Europe along the Balkan route.
The United Nations has asked the Croatian government to investigate the allegations of abuse.
"It is obvious that one of the intended effects of this behaviour is to humiliate refugees and migrants attempting to cross the border," Jack Sapoch from No Name Kitchen (NNK), an NGO that operates in the Bosnian town of Velika Kladusa, 2 kilometres from the Croatian border, told The Guardian.
"As far as I see it, this is the result of either one of two motivations. Either the Croatian authorities committing these acts are using spray paint to identify and humiliate repeat border crossers or, more worryingly, they are using this as a tactic to psychologically traumatise these men - the majority of whom are Muslim - with a religious symbol," Sapoch was quoted as saying.
The Guardian's article listed two other incidents from early May in which migrants claimed they had been pushed back from the border and sprayed with orange paint. According to migrants' testimonies, some had also had their money and mobile phones stolen and several had their shoes taken.
Every night groups of asylum seekers attempt to cross from Bosnia into Croatia, where police await them at the border, armed with truncheons, pistols and night vision goggles, the daily said.
The new Balkan route, which opened up after Hungary had closed its borders during the 2015 migrants crisis, now runs from Greece, Albania, Montenegro, and Serbia, to Bosnia.
Once there, the majority of migrants continue towards the northwestern corner of Bosnia, in an attempt to cross into Croatia and walk through the mostly mountainous 50-kilometre stretch of Croatia's territory hoping to reach Slovenia and the EU's passport-free Schengen area.
Croatian border police have been regularly accused of mistreating incoming migrants and alleged pushbacks, forcing migrants and refugees back into Bosnia without giving them a chance to formally request asylum. Croatian authorities have routinely rejected these allegations.
"Aid workers, doctors, border guards and UN officials have documented systematic abuse and violence perpetrated by police, with migrants often beaten, shot, robbed and even stripped of their clothes," the Guardian said.
The Guardian quoted the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, which expressed concern about reports of violence and treatment of migrants and refugees by Croatian police.
"‘Our organisation has previously received and subsequently shared with the authorities credible reports of people who claim they have been unlawfully returned from Croatia to Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia... These reports highlight problems regarding the identification of asylum claims, violence and excessive use of force, identification of vulnerable individuals, treatment of unaccompanied children," UNHCR spokesman for central Europe, Zoran Stevanovic, told The Guardian.
In the period from September 2019 to January 2020 the UNHCR had reported 100 cases of alleged unlawful returns from Croatia to neighbouring Bosnia and Serbia.
"Pushbacks are illegal and the spread of Covid-19 is not an excuse to confront vulnerable people with even more violence. It is unacceptable," Sapoch told The Guardian.