SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (CN) — Omar Dyab, a 33-year-old Syrian war refugee, shook his head. “Police in Croatia, Mafia,” he said with distaste. Dusk was settling over Sarajevo, the war-scarred capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina ringed by mountains, and shadows grew around the bleak central train station where Dyab and fellow Syrians seeking entry into Europe camped on the pavement.
The refugee talked of theft and rough, illegal treatment at the hands of Croatian police, who allegedly have beaten and stolen money from scores of migrants and refugees like Dyab.
Croatian police, according to asylum-seekers and humanitarian groups, are acting with brutal impunity as heavy-handed gatekeepers of a Europe gripped by fear of terrorism and anti-immigrant nationalism.
Croatian authorities deny the allegations.
Dyab, who’s from Damascus, Syria, told a Courthouse News Service reporter that he tried to cross into Europe from Bosnia via Croatia earlier in August near a city called Bihać. Bosnia-Herzegovina is not part of the European Union, but Croatia is.
When he and other Syrians were caught, they were arrested by Croatian police; then, he said, they damaged his smartphone and took €1,200 hidden in his waistband. He and the others were hit with batons. Another man, he said, had €5,000 stolen by police and one man’s passport was torn apart.
Dyab’s story is far from unique. There have been more than 200 reports of alleged abuse —beatings, including of children, intimidation and theft —border police in Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia in the past two years, according to nongovernment groups monitoring border violence. Incidents are reported online at www.borderviolence.eu. On the website, migrants are seen displaying and reporting bruises, cuts and broken teeth.
Last November, a 6-year-old Afghan girl was killed after Croatian police forced her family to return to Serbia by walking along train tracks at night. The girl was struck by a train, according to news reports and Marc Pratllusà, a volunteer with No Name Kitchen, a group helping migrants in Bosnia and Serbia. Pratllusà said thousands of migrants have been abused.
“A lot of governments around here have a policy to not allow people across their borders,” said Lydia Gall, a Human Rights Watch researcher based in Hungary, in a telephone interview. “These push-backs are going on and they are going on at various borders.”
Gall said recent reports of violence at the Croatian-Bosnian border echo what she found two years ago investigating accounts of abuse by police along the Croatian-Serbian border.
She said EU reticence on border violence is encouraging police forces to continue illegal policies to violently push asylum seekers back.
“EU institutions have remained eerily silent,” she said.
Tove Ernst, a spokeswoman for the EU Commission, said the EU was aware of the allegations and was in touch with Croatia about them.
“While the commission will continue to monitor the situation, we trust that Croatia will follow up on the specific allegations,” she said in an email.
Croatia became an EU member in July 2013. Croatia and Slovenia are the only nations of the former Yugoslavia that have been added to the EU.
“It is every state’s obligation to protect the safety, dignity and human rights and fundamental freedoms of all migrants, regardless of their migratory status, and at all times,” the International Organization for Migration, a UN agency, said in a statement. Ryan Schroeder, an IOM spokesman, said the agency was aware of the allegations but was not in a position to comment on them.
Under international law, as outlined in the Geneva Convention, people fleeing conflict must be granted the chance to apply for asylum.
Often migrants and asylum seekers try to elude border authorities because they do not expect to be granted asylum. Also in choosing to secretly cross borders in the Balkans, refugees may be hoping to seek asylum in richer countries such as Germany, France and Italy. Migrants often pay smugglers to help them across the Balkans.
Simon Murat, a 25-year-old Syrian traveling with Dyab from war-demolished Aleppo, said he too was mistreated by Croatian police. He said police damaged his smartphone and took €700 he had with him.
“Croatia, big problem,” he said in limited English as he helped his 3-year-old daughter, Nurjan, put a broken sandal on her foot. The girl’s mother was killed by a bomb explosion in Syria, he said. He was a pianist in Syria.
The group of Syrians consisted of men, women and children. Many other migrants and refugees were camped in the park and around the train station too.
When he was expelled to Bosnia, Dyab said the Croatian police shouted at him: “’Europe doesn’t like you! Go!’”
“I have lost everything,” Dyab said of the war in Syria. “Two trucks. Work. I have lost everything in Syria.” He delivered fruit before the war.
Since leaving Syria in 2013, he has not returned to his wife, 10-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son. It’s too dangerous, he said, and he fears being forced to fight in the Syrian army.
The Croatian Ministry of Interior said in an email that it has not found any evidence of rogue behavior by its police.
“In their interaction with migrants the police respect their fundamental rights and dignity and provide them with access to the system of international protection in case they need it,” the ministry said.
The statement suggested that many migrants are potentially violent. The ministry cited news and official reports from Bosnia that “clearly show that in that area migrants come into conflicts and injure one another.”
It added that Bosnian authorities “have on many occasions found cold steel weapons and firearms suitable for carrying out an attack or inflicting injuries” during raids and inspections of migrant camps.
The Croatian ministry said it has granted international protection to 149 people this year.
Croatia’s Office of the Ombudswoman is investigating reports “on police treatment of migrants coming from Bosnia and their access to international protection,” said Ana Tretinjak, a spokeswoman.
But she said her office cannot comment because the cases “are still open and our investigations are ongoing.” By law, the ombudswoman’s office is responsible for independently investigating human rights cases.
As European Union nations close their borders, many asylum-seekers are ending up stranded in Bosnia and other Balkan countries on the EU’s borders. The so-called Balkan corridor is a passage to Europe that avoids the often-deadly Mediterranean Sea route.
But that’s not to say the Balkan route does not have its hazards besides police brutality. Data from the International Organization for Migration show 12 migrants have drowned trying to cross rivers in the Balkans and two were killed in a rock slide this year.
Bosnian authorities report that about 11,000 migrants have entered the country so far this year and the majority of them have moved on.
The number of migrants crossing the Balkans has dropped dramatically, according to Frontex, the European border police and coast guard agency. The agency attributed the drop to more border policing.
The agency reported a 92 percent drop in 2017 compared to 2016 in illegal border crossings in the western Balkans — about 19,000 in 2017 compared to more than 260,000 in 2016. The agency reported a 10 percent drop in the first three months of 2018.
Frontex said it was not probing allegations of abuse in the Balkans because it does not carry out investigations in EU member states, said Ton van Lierop, an agency spokesman.
For now the route through the Balkans remains a corridor of hope for refugees and migrants fleeing war-torn and impoverished nations in Asia and Africa.
They are people like Ali Hassan, a 33-year-old from Pakistan. He was camped on a recent evening with fellow Pakistani migrants in the park in front of the Sarajevo train station.
For the past month he’d traveled on foot and by car from his homeland, and his blistered and callused feet were proof of his long march. He was sleeping on the ground.
“No work in Pakistan,” he said about his decision to leave his wife and daughters and seek work in Italy, where he has friends.
Ahead of him, though, was a crossing of Croatia or Hungary – and he was concerned. “Big problem,” he said. “Big problem.”