While EU leaders mull a controversial new system for migration, disturbing reports are emerging of migrants being beaten and abused by Croatian police as they seek to enter the European Union via Bosnia-Herzegovina.
According to The Guardian newspaper, which reported about claims of mistreatment around Velika Kladusa, near Bosnia's border with Croatia, on October 21, "People on the Balkans migrant trail have allegedly been whipped, robbed and…sexually abused by members of the Croatian police."
The Guardian cited the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), which said last month that it and other NGOs had "documented numerous cases of people being forcibly and sometimes violently pushed back" in Bosnia, which is estimated to have at least 7,400 people still accommodated in camps five years after the height of the migrant crisis in Europe.
According to the DRC, "these practices include theft, extortion, destruction of property, physical abuse and degrading treatment, and denial of access to asylum procedures."
Speaking to RFE/RL's Balkan Service on October 21, the DRC's country director for Bosnia said the NGO had received reports of a series of brutal attacks by Croatian police on migrants and asylum seekers at the Croatian-Bosnian border on October 12-16.
"People have been brutally beaten; they have had their belongings taken away or burned," Nikola Bay told RFE/RL. "They have been stripped and, at least in two cases, they have reported severe sexual abuse."
'Serious Bodily Injuries'
RFE/RL also encountered such allegations of abuse late last week when it visited a Bosnian health center providing assistance to migrants in Velika Kladusa.
According to medical workers at the facility, between October 12 and October 22 they treated around 150 migrants for various injuries, which they said they had received while crossing the border with Croatia.
Mustafa Hodzic, a doctor who works in the outpatient clinic at the Miral reception camp for migrants, told RFE/RL that in recent days he has seen "an increasing number of patients who appear with injuries in the form of hematomas or bruises that are located both on the back and in the area of the back or the lower leg and upper leg." He described these traumas as being caused by "a large number of blows" with "a blunt object."
Muhammad, a migrant originally from Pakistan, appeared at the Miral camp on October 21 with bruises on his stomach.
He says he got the injuries when he and a friend were picked up by Croatian police after spending days wondering in woodland after illegally crossing the border with Bosnia.
"Croatian police beat me. I haven't had food for five days. I don't even have a mobile phone," he told RFE/RL.
Muhammad's friend Faruk, who was with him when he was detained, said Croatian police also took his phone and money.
"I don't have any more money. I don't have anything. I can't even go to the camp," he said.
The day before Muhammad and Faruk arrived back at the Miral camp, a group of 26 migrants from Afghanistan and Pakistan were also treated for injuries at Velika Kladusa and filed a report with local police.
"One of them was found to have serious bodily injuries," Ale Siljdedic, a spokesman for the Internal Affairs Ministry of Bosnia's Una-Sana Canton, told RFE/RL. "The rest of the migrants were found to have minor bodily injuries."
According to Siljdedic, the migrants told the Bosnian police that they had crossed the Croatian border illegally and that they had subsequently been apprehended there by "uniformed persons, most likely the Croatian police."
"After that, they were returned to Bosnian territory at an unknown location," says Siljdedic, who added that "it is evident that these people have certain injuries on the body, but we cannot confirm at this time that it was done by police officers from a neighboring state. What we have are the statements of migrants."
The Croatian Interior Ministry has denied the accusations of abuse, although it said it was taking the allegations "very seriously" and would launch an investigation.
Meanwhile, the country's ombudswoman responsible for protecting human rights told RFE/RL that she had "no immediate knowledge of the events" reported first in The Guardian and subsequently elsewhere.
"These migrants in question did not contact us directly or through nongovernmental organizations," Lora Vidovic told RFE/RL. "We have opened an investigation procedure and we will ask the Interior Ministry to comment on the details, as we do in any case."
Nonetheless, Siljdedic says that authorities in Bosnia have to deal almost every day with cases of Croatian police forcibly returning migrants and refugees, often without due process.
"In certain cases, we have information that they enter deeper into the territory of Croatia, but after that they are found and returned to the border with Bosnia, not to regular border crossings, because that would be a regular readmission procedure," says Siljdedic.
'No Real Attempts To Prevent Violations'
This information also tallies with the findings of the Center for Peace Studies NGO in Zagreb, which says that the violence and expulsions at the Croatian border have been going on for quite some time based on thousands of testimonies from refugees and migrants, but that no effective investigation of these claims has ever been launched.
"The latest testimonies published by The Guardian are complementary to testimonies about the actions of the Croatian police in the past four years," Antonia Pindulic, a legal expert with the center, told RFE/RL.
On October 22, a day after The Guardian's report on abuses near Velika Kladusa, the Council of Europe's human rights commissioner, Dunja Mijatovic, expressed concern at "credible reports" of abuses at the Croatian border and called on Zagreb to investigate the claims. She said that any police found guilty of rights violations do not "enjoy impunity."
Vidovic joined Mijatovic in calling for the report of the Council of Europe's Committee for the Prevention of Torture, which paid an extraordinary visit to Croatia this summer, to be published as soon as possible, along with its recommendations regarding migration in the Balkan country.
Pindulic, however, said that Brussels could be doing more to tackle the problem.
"The EU's silence regarding the expulsion not only from Croatia but also from other European Union countries is indicative," she said. "Here we see a lot of serial expulsions in which Slovenia, Croatia, and other countries participate. There are no real attempts to prevent these human rights violations."
The latest reports of abuses come a few weeks after the EU published a controversial proposal aimed at facilitating the faster pre-entry screening of migrants and rapid repatriations for those whose applications fail to pass muster.
Although the proposed EU Pact on Migration is intended to speed up deportations and enable a more even distribution of asylum seekers in member states, Pindulic says it does little to tackle the issue of human rights violations and actually legalizes the "manner of circumventing responsibility in these cases."
Nikola Bay said the Danish Refugee Council was "extremely concerned at these reports of systematic patterns of abuse and violence." He called for "independent border-management mechanisms" to be put in place "to prevent these abuses and that all allegations of reports at the [EU's] borders are credibly and transparently investigated."
Meanwhile, a recent Gallup poll shows that sympathy for migrants in the region is in short supply generally.
According to the survey, residents of several European countries, including North Macedonia, Hungary, Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Montenegro, are the least sympathetic to the possibility of migrants settling in their country, their neighborhood, or marrying a family member.