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Croatian police use violence to push back migrants, says president

 Croatia's President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic  Croatia's President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic

After months of official denials, Croatia’s president has admitted that the country’s police are involved in the violent pushbacks of migrants and asylum seekers apprehended inside the country.

The best chance for thousands of refugees stuck in Bosnia is to cross its border with Croatia to make it to the European Union. For the past year there has been repeated evidence of police using force against those who have made it across the border and then dumping them back in Bosnia.

In an interview with Swiss television, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović appeared to admit the pushbacks were taking place. She denied they were illegal and also admitted that police used force when doing so.

“I have spoken with the interior minister, the chief of police, and officers on the ground and they assured me they have not been using excessive force,” said Grabar-Kitarović, according to reports of the interview. “Of course, a little bit of force is needed when doing pushbacks.”

Human Rights Watch called on the government to stop the process as pushing people back across the border is illegal under international law.

“The denial of Croatia’s abusive border policies by Zagreb and EU institutions is no longer tenable,” said Lydia Gall, a senior researcher for Balkans and the Eastern EU at Human Rights Watch. “Hundreds, if not thousands, of migrants and asylum seekers have been ill-treated by Croatian border officials and deserve redress and justice.”

Last year in the Bosnian border towns of Velika Kladuša and Bihać the Guardian spoke to dozens of men who said they had been subjected to violence at the hands of Croatian police. Often they were apprehended deep inside Croatian territory and driven back to the border. Women and children generally said they had not been physically assaulted, though there were some exceptions. Many said police had destroyed their telephones and stoleb money before driving them back to the Bosnia-Croatia border and dumping them on the other side.

While each individual story is hard to verify, the volume of testimony collated by rights groups and journalists suggests a pattern of systematic violence and illegal pushbacks. There are more than 5,000 people in the two Bosnian towns, living in makeshift facilities without proper amenities and hoping to get to the EU.

In a statement last year, the Croatian interior ministry accused the migrants of carrying weapons and inflicting injuries on themselves. The ministry said the Croatian police force always respected the “fundamental rights and dignity of migrants”. Human Rights Watch said that in a meeting in May with the interior ministry, the secretary of state said migrants had fabricated claims of violence and suggested activists were impersonating Croatian police officers.

Croatia is looking to join the border-free Schengen zone and has been keen to present itself as a reliable guardian of the EU’s external frontier. Last year the interior minister, Davor Božinović, said Croatia has “the strongest border police in this part of Europe”.

EU institutions have turned a blind eye to the practice of pushing back refugees as the issue of halting migration flows is politically fraught.

Gall said: “The European commission needs to protect EU law and fundamental rights at external borders by opening infringement proceedings against Croatia and calling on authorities to investigate alleged abuse and provide fair and efficient access to asylum.”

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