Ibrahim had a hunch he knew what was coming when the Croatian police car stopped. The young Pakistani had set off from Kashmir two years earlier to reach Europe. But now, on a cold day at the end of March, the Croatian police dragged him and the other refugees out of the vehicle, Ibrahim recalls. More security forces were waiting outside. They wore black balaclavas to hide their faces.
The men forced the refugees to take off their jackets, shoes and pants, and one by one, the hooded men lined up. One of the men in masks grabbed Ibrahim by the neck and dragged him toward the river, according to his recollection. The others beat him, aiming at Ibrahim’s back, arms and legs. "They were beating me like crazy,” he says. Out of fear, he asked that he not be identified by his last name in this article.
Ibrahim recalls a long, thick branch that hurt especially bad when he was hit with it. Three other refugees say they were beaten with a metal rod and with a sling that had a heavy object attached to the end of it.
The beatings lasted only a few minutes, but it felt like an eternity to Ibrahim. The hooded men pushed him down to the Glina River, the natural border between Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina in the village of Poljana. The river is only a few meters wide there. "Fast, jump,” one of the masked men shouted in English, says Ibrahim. "Go back Bosnia!"
The European Union closed the Balkan route to migrants in 2016, after it had already been used in previous months by hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria and other countries as they made their way to Western Europe. Thousands of refugees have been camping in the forest and in old war ruins in northwest Bosnia-Herzegovina ever since. On the other side of the border, Croatian officials with night-vision goggles and firearms patrol the border. But that doesn’t stop the refugees from setting off each night. They have a name for their dangerous attempt to get past the border guards: "The Game.”
Asylum seekers have been reporting for years of abuse at the hands of Croatian police and of being forced back to Bosnia. Photos from aid organizations show refugees with bleeding lacerations, broken arms, knocked-out teeth and dark red marks on their backs. Asylum-seekers speak of torture with stun guns, sexual abuse and even torn-out toenails. The focus of their reports is always the same: Masked police officers.
Beatings Instead of Hearings
NGOs, doctors and even the United Nations Refugee Agency have collected thousands of such testimonies. Sometimes, skin color alone is enough to become a target of the security forces. In winter 2019, Croatian border guards illegally deported two Nigerian table-tennis players who were only trying to take part in a university championship.
Pushbacks, as they are called, violate not only Croatian asylum law but also European law and the Geneva Convention on Refugees. They make a mockery of the right to apply for asylum. Instead of being given a hearing, asylum-seekers are beaten.
The Croatian authorities deny that officers use force at the border or that they illegally drag asylum seekers back across the border. The government has simply ignored video clips showing security forces leading asylum-seekers to the border. Government officials also claim that refugees have simply invented claims of violence. Croatian Foreign Minister Gordan Grlić Radman recently said that his country denies "all accusations of incorrect behavior at the border.”
But Ibrahim’s case makes Croatia’s claims of innocence all the more difficult to uphold.
DER SPIEGEL spent months investigating his case together with the media organization Lighthouse Reports. The reporters spoke with three refugees who were traveling with Ibrahim. To the extent possible, they reconstructed the route they took. The refugees’ reports can only be partly independently verified, but their geodata does corroborate their statements. There is also a video that the NGO No Name Kitchen obtained when interviewing the refugees. DER SPIEGEL and Lighthouse Reports were able to verify its authenticity.
The reporting clearly shows that it is not only in Greece that refugees are being pushed back forcibly. On the Bosnian-Croatian border, masked men are beating up refugees. The images reveal a disturbing level of violence that is increasingly becoming the norm at the EU’s external borders.
Ibrahim, for his part, had already failed to get past the Croatian security forces dozens of times, but in March things went better than usual. He and three other migrants described to DER SPIEGEL how they, together with around 50 other refugees, some of them underage, set off that day for the EU. The men crossed the border near Šturlić, a village in Bosnia, before walking through the wilderness of the Croatian forests. It was cold, and at night they slept in cheap sleeping bags.
After around seven days, the group reached the Kulpa River, which borders Slovenia, and the migrants spent the night there. They ate the last of their supplies, they recall, and finally waded through the river on their way to Western Europe. The group stopped in a patch of forest above the Slovenian village Kočevje. Smugglers were supposed to meet them there to take the men to Italy, but nobody showed up. "We held out for three or four days without food or anything to drink,” says Ibrahim. But then they finally gave up.
Slovenian police intercepted the refugees as they left their hiding place. The refugees say the officers took them to a police station, questioned each individually and took photos and fingerprints. The migrants claim that each of them asked to be allowed to file an asylum application. But the answer they received, they say, was clear: "No asylum. You’re going back to Bosnia."
"I Have Never Been So Scared in My Life"
When contacted by DER SPIEGEL, the Slovenian police confirmed that they had apprehended the refugees. They deny, however, that Ibrahim asked to apply for asylum, so they handed the men over to the Croatian authorities as part of a return agreement. Both the Croatian and the Slovenian officials certified the handover with their signatures.
Things moved quickly once the refugees were in the hands of the Croatian police. The men say the officers drove the group to the border river, where the men wearing the balaclavas were already waiting for them. "I have never been so scared in my life,” says Ibrahim.
The refugees’ geodata, stored in a Google Maps account, supports their statements. It includes data geolocating the group in Croatia and Slovenia. Shaky mobile phone images provide even more evidence. One of the refugees says that the images only exist because he was able to hide his mobile phone in his underwear.
The images show Ibrahim standing on the Bosnian side of the river, in wet pants and no shoes. The young Pakistani can be see crying, his face twisted in agony. "I have such pain in my leg!” he whimpers. Another refugee whose clothes are wet and also doesn’t have any shoes, can be seen supporting him.
Four men can be seen in the background on Croatian soil with blue and olive-green clothing reminiscent of uniforms. Three are seen putting on black masks. The men carry a long pole with them, as well as a stick with rope that has a heavy object attached to it. One of the men can be seen wielding the homemade weapon.
The hooded men lead another group of people to the border river. They beat one of the migrants with a stick or a pole. They then chase another a few seconds later, running toward the border. "Fuck your mother” rings out across the river.
The metadata show that the video was taken on the afternoon of March 23. The buildings in the background prove that the events unfolded near Poljana on the Bosnian-Croatian border. The masked men can’t be clearly identified in the images. However, their presence at the closely guarded border suggests that the men are part of the Croatian security forces. It’s unlikely that masked men could operate in broad daylight without the knowledge of the authorities.
"Some of the uniforms visible in the video seem to be all mixed up,” says Ranko Ostojić, a politician with the center-left social democrats in Croatia. He says he suspects the men in question are retired police officers who are now part of the reserves. "They used to be allowed to keep their uniforms, and now they are apparently carrying out pushbacks.”
Ostojić was once Croatia’s director of police and interior minister. He spent years chairing the Domestic Affairs Committee in the Croatian national parliament. "The pushbacks are systematic,” he says. "Based on my experience, I am convinced that they are at least tolerated by the government.”
When contacted by DER SPIEGEL, officials at the Croatian Interior Ministry said in a statement that they have no records of any operations on the date and location in question. They said they could not comment on the events described without further details. Croatia offers asylum seekers the opportunity to apply for asylum, the statement says, and goes on to claim that NGO reports on injured migrants almost completely ignore the conflicts between migrants in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The ministry claims that the migrants are injured in accidents or that they inflict injuries on each other and then blame Croatian border police.
When Bosnian Milo Gujić hears shots or screams from the woods below his barn, he knows they are coming again. A short time later, bleeding, crying and half-naked men show up in his yard. Sometimes, he says, it happens daily.
Fear of Retaliation
Gujić and his wife have been experiencing the brutality of the Croatian border police up close for years now. Their property is located only a few hundred meters away from the EU’s external border. Gujić, who has a wiry build, has asked that we not use his real name for this story. He is afraid that Croatian security forces might retaliate against him.
In March, Gujić opened up his home to Ibrahim and his companions. Gujic says he found the men standing at his door trembling and sobbing. When shown the video, he immediately recognizes them. He built a fire for them and brought dry clothes and food. "When I took the clothes off one of them, I saw his back. It looked like someone had stuck an iron bar into a fire and then hit him with it. That’s how deep red the marks from the blows were.”
The Glina River along the border is a popular place for pushbacks. It is easily accessible from the Croatian side and only sparsely populated on the Bosnian side. Gujić says the Croatians recently paved the gravel road leading to the border, an omen, he believes, that the half-naked, injured men will keep coming. Gujić can't understand the violence: "You don't even hurt animals like that."
The EU pays Croatia millions of euros to secure the border. Croatia is also slated to join the Schengen Area soon, meaning its borders with other members of the area will no longer by controlled. Once that happens, the Croatian border with Bosnia-Herzegovina will become one of those places where decisions are made on how many asylum-seekers are actually allowed to reach Western Europe.
In October 2019, the European Commission gave Croatia a positive evaluation in its progress toward accession into the Schengen Area, but said it would have to continue its work on "management of the external borders.” All Schengen member states must approve any country’s accession. But already, the Croatian government is effectively acting as one of Europe's gatekeepers.
So far, the EU has largely ignored these obvious violations of human rights. In Germany, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer and Chancellor Angela Merkel have openly praised the work of the Croatian border police. EU border management agency Frontex, which monitors the border from the air, has reported hundreds of illegal border crossings, but no human rights violations.
"The EU is turning a blind eye to pushbacks,” says former Croatian Interior Minister Ostojić. He says it appears EU officials don’t seem to care whether the border police act in accordance with international law. And their silence merely encourages the Croatian government.
"The images are the clearest evidence yet that Croatia engages in violent pushbacks,” says Hanaa Hakiki, a lawyer with the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), a Berlin-based human rights organization that provides support to refugees facing court proceedings. She notes that the deportations did not take place at official border crossings and that some of the weapons used by the masked men were homemade. "In light of these terrible images, the EU should take immediate action,” she says.
Schengen As a Means of Pressure?
Ylva Johansson, the European Commissioner for Home Affairs responsible for EU borders, sent a letter to the Croatian Ministry of the Interior at the end of October and urged that the reports be investigated. "If proven true, what is shown there is of course unacceptable," she now says after viewing the images. "People cannot be beaten up at the border. There must be consequences."
Meanwhile, the EU’s ombudswoman has also opened a probe. But real pressure on Croatia would probably only arise if the pushbacks were to put Croatia's Schengen accession into question. "Violence at the border cannot continue," Johansson says. "This will not help Croatia in its efforts to join the Schengen Area."
In the end, Ibrahim finally managed to win the "Game.” After another attempt, he managed to make it to Italy. He is currently living in a housing project in the north of the country and he was able to apply for asylum.
But the months spent on the Croatian border took a massive toll on him. When he looks at the videos of himself on the Croatian border today, he bursts out in tears. He says he still suffers from headaches and the pain in his knee is also getting worse, especially now that the weather is getting colder. At night, he says, he sometimes has nightmares about the beatings by the Croatian policemen. One time, his roommates told him the next morning that he had been calling out for help. Again.