(Budapest) – Croatian police are forcing asylum seekers back to Serbia from inside Croatia, in some cases using violence, without giving them an opportunity to lodge claims for protection, Human Rights Watch said today.

Migrants wait in line to receive free food during a snowfall outside a derelict customs warehouse in Belgrade, Serbia January 9, 2017.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 10 people from Afghanistan, including two unaccompanied children, who described being forced back to Serbia since November 2016 after being apprehended in Croatian territory. They said they were denied the right to lodge asylum claims even though they said they wanted to seek asylum. Nine said the officers kicked and punched them, and all said that the officers took personal items, including money or mobile phones.

“Accounts of Croatia’s shocking and abusive treatment of asylum seekers at its border are unworthy of an EU state,” said Lydia Gall, Balkans and Eastern Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Authorities in Zagreb need to make sure that all officials are doing their duty to protect asylum seekers and not violently forcing them back to Serbia.”

In four cases, asylum seekers described the uniforms and insignia worn by the men who forcibly returned them that match those worn by Croatian police. In three other cases, asylum seekers told Human Rights Watch that law enforcement officials introduced themselves as Croatian police and wore matching uniforms. In one case, an asylum seeker described the uniforms as “very dark, like black,” and in another, the asylum seeker described police vehicles. One asylum seeker was unable to give a detailed description of uniforms or insignia.

Croatian authorities should investigate allegations that officials have engaged in abuses against asylum seekers and hold those responsible to account, Human Rights Watch said.  Human Rights Watch wrote to Croatia’s Interior Ministry, on December 20, informing officials of the findings and requesting comment but has yet to receive a response.

Hussein (not his real name), 24, from Afghanistan, told Human Rights Watch that he made it to a reception facility in Zagreb with two friends in early January. He said that staff there told him to go to a specific police station to register his asylum claim. At the police station after they allegedly let them register a claim the police put the three into a police car saying that they would transfer them to a refugee camp. Instead, the police took them to a site close to the Serbian border, beat them, laughed at them, took their phones and forced them back to Serbia.

Ahmed, 18, from Afghanistan, (not his real name) said that he and 27 other men who crossed into Croatia on November 21 were beaten by what he described as Croatian police wearing dark color uniforms riding in police cars. “My little brother and I were beaten,” he said. “They hit me on the back and on my legs with batons… There was no reason for it… If you talked they [officials] would beat more. I was scared so I didn’t speak. Others were beaten more than me because they didn’t immediately sit down when they were told to.”

Ahmed said that Croatian officials searched them and took their mobile phones. “After that,” he said, “they pushed us back to Serbia and said, ‘Don’t come back.”

Another 18-year old from Afghanistan, travelling in a group of 29, including a family with three small children, said that on November 20 more than a dozen officials wearing dark blue uniforms apprehended the group far inside Croatian territory, split the group into separate cars, drove them to a site near the Serbian border, then beat all single men.

“It was good that I had a lot of clothes as it served as padding,” he said. “They [officials] beat me with a baton on my head and legs. Five of them beat me…They also beat us as they made us run back into Serbia.”

Croatia, along with Macedonia, Serbia, Slovenia and Austria, introduced new border restrictions in March 2016 in an attempt to close the Western Balkan route for asylum seekers and other migrants trying to enter the European Union irregularly. As a result of the border closures, thousands of asylum seekers and other migrants have been stuck in Serbia and elsewhere on the Western Balkan route, exposed to the weather, and dependent on smugglers who in some cases abuse or exploit them.

Despite the restrictions, asylum seekers continue to attempt the journey through the Western Balkans. The increase in reported incidents affecting people trying to transit through Croatia may be connected to restrictions on asylum seekers imposed by Hungary at its border with Serbia.

Pushbacks from Croatia to Serbia have been documented in the past. Moving Europe, a joint initiative of nongovernmental groups, in January 2016 documented violent pushbacks from Croatia to Serbia. The summary return of asylum seekers without consideration of their protection needs is contrary to EU asylum law, the EU charter of fundamental rights, and the international Refugee Convention.

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees’ current guidance is that Serbia should not be considered a safe third country for asylum seekers. This means that Serbia is not a country to which EU states, including Croatia, should return asylum seekers because of its failure to protect their rights in line with the Refugee Convention and to provide effective remedies as required by the European Convention on Human Rights. Human Rights Watch has previously documented serious abuse of asylum seekers and other migrants and shortcomings in the asylum system, including lack of protection for unaccompanied children.

Of 574 asylum applications submitted in 2016 in Serbia, a majority by Afghans, Iraqis and Syrians, only 19 people received refugee status, and 23 subsidiary protection.  

On December 10, 2015, the European Commission initiated infringement proceedings against Croatia over its failure to implement EU legislation requiring the government to fingerprint asylum seekers and send the data to the central Eurodac system within 72 hours. The commission has not raised public concerns about summary returns of asylum seekers and other migrants from Croatia to Serbia, however. The European Commission should press Croatian authorities to halt summary returns of asylum seekers to Serbia and to investigate violent and other summary returns, Human Rights Watch said.

“Croatia’s actions are putting asylum seekers and migrants at risk and flouting its legal obligations,” Gall said. “The European Commission should press Zagreb to comply with its obligations under EU and refugee law, investigate alleged abuses and provide meaningful access to asylum and fair procedures for those on its territory and at its borders.”