A woman from Afghanistan was allegedly sexually abused, held at knifepoint and forced to strip naked by a Croatian border police officer, during a search of a group of migrants on the border with Bosnia.
The European commission described it as a “serious alleged criminal action’’ and urged the Croatian authorities “to thoroughly investigate all allegations, and follow up with relevant actions”.
According to a dossier from the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), the incident occurred on the night of 15 February, in Croatian territory, a few kilometres from the Bosnian city of Velika Kladuša.
In the report, seen by the Guardian, the woman said she tried to cross the border with a group of four others, including two children, but they were stopped by an officer who allegedly pointed a rifle at them. The Afghans asked for asylum. However, according to the witnesses, one of the officers tore the papers apart and laughed.
“He insulted us, slapped the elderly man who was with us and the children, and told us to empty our pockets and show them our bags,” said the woman. “Then he took me aside and started to search me,” she said. “I insisted that he should not be touching me. He asked me why. I told him because I am a woman and a Muslim and it’s haram. The officer slapped me over the head and told me: ‘If you are Muslim, why did you come to Croatia, why didn’t you stay in Bosnia with Muslims?’”
The officer allegedly removed the woman’s headscarf and jacket.
“After he removed my jacket, he started to touch my breasts, and I started to cry,” said the woman. “I gave the police officer 50 euros that I had in my pocket, hoping that he would stop touching me. The officer ordered me to remove all my shirts and I refused. He continued to touch me on my breasts and behind, and I cried a lot. The officer told me to stop crying while gesticulating that he would strangle me if I continued. I was scared but I stopped crying.”
Minutes later a police van arrived and the migrants were ordered to get inside and driven for about 20 minutes before being told to get out.
An officer again asked the woman to strip naked.
“I objected and I was slapped hard in the face and told: ‘strip naked,’” she said. “I had six T-shirts and three pairs of pants on me. I removed all but one shirt and trousers and I covered myself with a blanket. An officer approached me and started to touch me over the blanket. He felt my clothes and slapped me, saying I needed to remove everything, even underwear. The officer started to search and touch me, while I was naked. He then asked me if I loved him. He told me: ‘I love you, do you love me? Do you want me to take you somewhere to be with me?’.
“I was scared and in tears. He asked to take me to the forest and asked me if I understood what he meant. I gestured to him that I didn’t understand. I did. The officer then grabbed my shoulder and pushed me in the direction of another officer. They both had flashlights on the forehead and I couldn’t see well. The officer that had touched me pulled out a knife and put it on my throat. He told me that, if I ever said anything to anyone, he would kill me, and, if I ever came back to Croatia, I would meet my end, in the forest, under him.”
The officer allegedly hit the woman again and the other members of the group on their faces, heads and legs. Then the officers reportedly ordered them to walk to Bosnia.
“The testimony is truly shocking,” said Charlotte Slente, DRC secretary general. “Despite the lower number of pushbacks recorded by the DRC in 2021, the patterns of reported violence and abuse at the Croatia-BiH [Bosnia-Herzegovina] border remain unchanged.”
“Once again, this underscores the urgent need for systematic investigations of these reports,” Slente added. “Despite the European commission’s engagement with Croatian authorities in recent months, we have seen virtually no progress, neither on investigations of the actual reports, nor on the development of independent border monitoring mechanisms, to prevent violence at the EU’s external borders. It really is time to turn rhetoric into reality – and ensure that truly independent border monitoring is put in place to prevent these abuses and ensure that credible and transparent investigations can effectively hold perpetrators of violence and abuse to account.”
The European commission said it expected the Croatian authorities to thoroughly investigate all allegations, and follow up with relevant actions.
“We are in contact with the Croatian authorities, which have committed to investigate allegations of mistreatment at their external borders, monitor the situation closely and keep the commission informed on progress made. The commission is assisting them in this task, financing an independent monitoring mechanism, implemented by Croatia, involving different stakeholders, such as NGOs and international organisations.’’
According to the DRC, since May 2019 almost 24,000 migrants have been illegally pushed back to Bosnia – 547 between January and February 2021.
Hundreds of migrants walk the snowy paths of the Balkan route daily, in an attempt to reach central Europe. Most are stopped by Croatian police, searched, often allegedly robbed and, sometimes violently, pushed back into Bosnia, where, for months, thousands of asylum seekers have been stranded in freezing temperatures.
The Border Violence Monitoring Network said dozens of women and young girls have reported being “searched everywhere” by male Croatian police officers.
In response, the Croatian interior ministry said the police would investigate the allegations but that in preliminary checks there was no recorded dealings with “females from the population of illegal migrants” on the day in question.
It added: “With their humane acts of saving the lives of hundreds of migrants by pulling them out of minefields, ravines, rescuing them from drowning, carrying them for miles through snowstorms, the Croatian police showed, not only an organised and professional approach in the protection of the state border of the Republic of Croatia and the external border of the EU, but, above all, dedication and humanity.
“The persistent portrayal of the Croatian police as a brutal and inhumane group prone to robberies and abuse of illegal migrants has now become commonplace without a single [piece of] evidence.
“In order to achieve their objective, migrants are ready to use all means and even consciously risk their lives and the lives of their family members, knowing that the Croatian police will save them when they find themselves in such danger. In addition, if the Croatian police prevent them from illegally entering, they are ready to falsely accuse those same police of abuse and denying access to the system of international protection.
“After being hurt by accident, or in mutual physical conflicts, migrants always say that it was the police of the country they wish to enter that beat them.”
In the UK, Rape Crisis (rapecrisis.org.uk), a national organisation offering support and counselling for those affected by rape and sexual abuse, can be contacted on 0808 802 9999. A list of numbers for organisations in other countries can be found here.