A Serbian NGO has accused Croatian border police of inflicting "physical and psychological torture" on an Afghan minor last month. Croatia's interior ministry dismissed the allegations as "unfounded and incomprehensible." In the past, international organizations and NGOs have repeatedly criticized Croatia of using excessive force as migrants try to enter the EU member state from Serbia.
Serbia's refugee agency has accused Croatian border police of torturing a 16-year-old Afghan refugee and of denying him and 15 other migrants traveling with him their right to claim asylum in the European Union.
Croatia's interior ministry dismissed the accusations as "unfounded and[...]absolutely incomprehensible" and said they stem from Serbia's determination to protect its own and the EU's borders against illegal migrants.
Relations between the former Yugoslav Republics of Croatia, the last country to become an EU member state, and Serbia, which aspires to join the bloc, were never very good.
But relations have been further strained as asylum seekers, mostly from the Middle East and Asia, cross the Balkans trying to reach western Europe.
Serbia, along with rights groups and international bodies including the UN refugee agency UNHCR, has previously criticized Croatia's treatment of asylum seekers. The statement made by Serbia's refugee agency on the Afghan teenager was unusually strong, though.
It said the Croatian police, late last month, had inflicted "physical and psychological torture" on him - including beatings and electrocution - that resulted in his suffering fractured ribs and internal bleeding.
"The Commissariat... expresses concern and outrage over such practices and warns... the international community about the excessive use of violence by the Croatian border police and blatant violations of human rights," it said in a statement.
Victim fears more violence
The teenager, who spoke to the news agency Reuters at a Serbian refugee camp where he is now staying with his 15 comrades, identified himself as Sharukhan.
He declined to give his full name for fear of being beaten again if he tried to enter Croatia once more. Sharukhan said the Croatian police had also smashed his cell phone and confiscated 600 euros, though they let him keep his Serbian dinars.
Other members of Sharukhan's group showed bandaged limbs which they said were also caused by Croatian police brutality.
Asked about the accusations, Croatia's interior ministry said it was not aware of this specific case. "The allegations about the torture of migrants are absolutely incomprehensible and have no real basis," it stated.
"We consider this to be another in a series of unfounded and substantially unsupported allegations against the Croatian police due to its persistence and determination in protecting the state border and the external border of the European Union," the ministry said in a statement on its website this week.
But Rados Djurovic, executive director of the Belgrade-based Asylum Protection Center watchdog, said police violence against illegal migrants in the region was widespread.
"These practices are taking more dramatic and inhumane shapes, where in addition to beatings, people are being ... degraded and treated as non-humans, and of course are illegally pushed back into Serbia," Djurovic said.
More irregular crossings
So far this year, Croatian police have prevented 9,487 attempts of irregular border crossings and arrested 600 smugglers including some from Serbia,
Croatia's interior ministry said.
In 2015, hundreds of thousands of migrants without papers passed through the so-called 'Balkan route' on their way to the West. The numbers, however, have dwindled since border controls were tightened across the region in 2016.
Yet in recent months, the Balkan route was again seeing an increased number of irregular border crossings: According to Slovenian police, a total of 1,740 migrant crossings were detected in July 2019, while 7,415 were recorded in the first seven months of this year — this is roughly a 50 percent increase compared to the same period last year.
In Croatia, more than 9,000 migrants were registered in the first seven months of this year alone, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM); last year, the number had reached a little over 8,000 in 12 months.
With material from Reuters, ANSA