VRT News special report: Migrants maltreated on the EU’s borders

VRT News’ reporters Majd Khalifeh and Mieke Strynckx have uncovered evidence of so-called “push-back” tactics used by the Croatian police against migrants that cross into the country from neighbouring Bosnia. The migrants are not given the opportunity to claim asylum which is a breach of international law. Our colleagues also discovered that those crossing into Croatia are often the victims of violence.  

The Iraqi Ali and his family have tried several times to cross into the EU from both Bosnia and Serbia. During one attempt their boat sank on the River Danube. Ali’s sister and his 12-year-old son both drowned. The boy’s body was never found. 

Once Ali and his family were successful in reaching Slovenia. However, they were intercepted by the Slovenian police and taken to the border with Croatia. Despite their request to be giving protection as refugees, once in Croatia they were interrogated by the Croatian police. 

A Croatian police officers stamped on Ali’s toes. Ali says that this was done deliberately. VRT News heard numerous other allegations of brutality on the part of the Croatian police. 

“Failed state” Bosnia

Bosnia and Herzegovina is a country with many social, economic and sectarian issues of its own. Some describe the country as a “failed state”.

Since 2018 a growing number of migrants have chosen Bosnia, that borders Croatia, as a route to try and enter the EU. The reception of migrants in Bosnia is provided by the International organisation for Migration that is part of the UN. However, provision in the official camps is lacking and many migrants are forced to seek shelter in dilapidated buildings or in tents close to the border. 

The Danish Refugee Council offers medical care both in the official camps and to those living in improvised shelters along Bosnia’s border with Croatia. Their teams have heard countless reports of push-back tactics by the Croatian police and have treated many migrants for injuries sustained during such pushbacks. 

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Our reporters accompanied a Danish Refugees Council team to the border village of Velika Kladusa. Here 40 Bengali and Pakistani men live in an improvised shelter. In the video above one of them tells of how his possessions were taken and he was brutally beaten by the Croatian police. 

No asylum

Inside a disused factory the Syrian Palestinian Mohammed tells of how despite his request to claim asylum the Croatian police put him over the border into Bosnia after he had been detained by them in the Croatian capital Zagreb. Hear about his experience in the video below. 

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Masked men dressed in black

The migrants say that the worst of the violence comes from masked police officers dressed in black. One man from Algeria told VRT News that often all the migrants’ possessions are taken, and they are sometimes even forced to strip to their underwear. 

He alleges that Croatian police officers take any money they find, destroy the migrants’ telephones, and beat them. It is of course difficult to verify whether the allegations are true. However, after talking to dozens of people from disparate groups at various locations our reporters heard similar stories. The Bosnian police confirms that its officers regularly come across migrants in border areas that are sometimes only wearing underwear and are sometimes badly injured. In the statements the migrants give to the Bosnian police they say that they have been ill-treated by police officers in Croatia.

This year alone the Director of the Danish Refugee Council in Bosnia Nicola Bay has collected at least 1,200 reports of illegal pushback tactics on the part of the Croatian authorities. Last summer this was between 1,500 and 2,000 per month. In around half of these cases the migrants also suffered physical violence at the hands of the police. Nicola Bay explains in the video below. The video contains some harrowing images.  

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In a response the Croatian police deny any use of violence against the migrants. Gilio Toic-Sintic, who is second in command at the Croatian Border Police says that migrants often injury each other and then claim that they were victims of police brutality. 

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