Croatian police are investigating reports that an Afghan woman was sexually harassed at the country’s border with Bosnia-Herzegovina in the middle of February. She says she was held at knife-point and asked to strip naked whilst being touched by officers.
The accusations, gathered by the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) and reported by the Guardian newspaper on April 7, were described by DRC’s country director in Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH), Nicola Bay, as "truly horrifying."
Bay said to the news agency Associated Press (AP) that the unnamed Afghan woman had "alleged repeated incidents of sexual abuse during a pushback from Croatia to Bosnia-Herzgovina."
In fact, in the DRC’s border monitoring monthly snapshot for January and February this year, among all the reports of violence and pushbacks suffered by migrants at the border between Bosnia and Croatia, two incidents involving "gender based violence" were recorded.
Out of respect for the privacy of one of the individuals involved, the DRC says it only included "some elements of the first incident" which was recorded on February 2 but allegedly took place on December 20, 2020. The second was recorded by the DRC on February 23 and allegedly took place on February 15, 2021.
Touching and kissing
In the first incident, the woman alleges that one officer in his early thirties approached her inside the police van, whilst her partner had been taken outside and was being beaten. The officer allegedly "started touching and forcefully kissing her." The woman told the DRC she was "frozen to death from fear, so much so that she couldn’t scream for help." She said the police officer touched her breasts and put his hand in her pants.
The woman says that the incident lasted for "five to six minutes" before "the other policeman approached the van, which made the perpetrator stop." After that, the police officer who allegedly assaulted her "took her out of the van and started beating her with his fists for a few minutes." The woman said she had "bruising of her spine and her face started bleeding," eventually she said the other police officer told his colleague to stop.
In the second incident, alleged to have taken place on February 15, the unnamed Afghan woman gave written consent to the DRC to share her testimony in full.
This woman said that she was trying to cross the border near Velika Kladusa in a group of four. Two children were with her -- they weren’t her own; the children’s mother had already made it to a camp in Zagreb in Croatia. An elderly man was also present, his wife and daughter were also already in the Zagreb camp.
Held at gunpoint
The woman said that they waited for a police car with three officers in it to move off before attempting to cross the border. Soon after they crossed they were "approached by one of the police officers we recognized from before." He pointed a rifle at them and asked them to sit on the floor, which they did.
A second officer joined them, holding binoculars and then the police car showed up they had seen earlier with "one officer driving." This woman said that one of the officers was "skinny with blond hair and blue eyes, the other one was a bit older and of medium build, while the third one was tall and of strong constitution."
The children and the elderly man showed their papers testifying that their relatives were already in a camp in Zagreb. The group say they specifically asked for asylum and to be accommodated there. But, they say, "the blue eyed officer took the papers and tore them apart in front of us."
The woman says that she had two phones on her, one of which was the elderly man, and €150 on her. The police asked them to give them their phones and money, but they said no. When they didn’t, the police began searching bags, she said and slapping both the old man and the children.
'I started to cry'
After the police found a phone charger in one of the bags, the woman said she was taken aside whilst the police officer "screamed at us." He began searching the woman and the woman told him he shouldn’t touch her. He asked her why and she said, "because I am a woman and a Muslim and it's haram." She said the officer "slapped me over the head and told me: 'If you are a Muslim, why did you come to Croatia, why didn’t you stay in Bosnia with Muslims?'"
The woman said the officer continued to search her, removing her headscarf and jacket. Then he began touching her breasts and she "started to cry." She gave the officer the elderly man’s phone and €50, hoping this would stop him touching her, but she claims this didn’t stop him. She says she had six t-shirts on her and was asked to remove them all. She refused.
"He continued to touch me on my breasts and behind and I cried a lot." The officer then told the woman to stop crying, the woman claims he was gesticulating that he would strangle her if she continued crying. She says she was "scared but I stopped crying." Then the officer found her other phone and the €150 and put them in his pocket.
Fifteen minutes later, the woman says a police man showed up with one officer inside. They were ordered to board the van and driven for about 20 minutes. When they stopped they were kept waiting in the van for another 30 minutes. The woman claims she could hear "screams and hits outside."
At that point an officer wearing a head torch turned up. She said there were three officers in total there but it was "impossible to see any details of their uniforms." The woman says she was asked where her husband was and she told them she was with her brother, "hoping that would help me." She says the officers "started slapping and punching the children, then they ordered them to walk down into the forest."
She says the man she had indicated as her brother was forced to strip "completely naked, even his underwear," and that the incident was "so humiliating." The she was forced to translate for her naked elderly friend. She said she found it "shocking and sad."
They say they were asked again about their phones and when they said the other officers had taken them, a blanket was given to the elderly man and he was told to wait aside. Then she says the officer asked her to strip naked, to which she objected. She was "slapped hard in the face and told: 'strip naked.'" The woman said she had six t-shirts on and three pairs of pants. She said she removed "all but one shirt and trousers" and covered herself with a blanket.
The officer then touched her through the blanket, and told her she had to remove everything, even her underwear. She says this officer started to "search and touch me while I was naked." According to the woman’s account, he then asked her if she loved him and asked if she wanted to go somewhere to be with him. She says she was "scared and in tears."
A knife to the throat
At this point, she says the officer pulled out a knife and put it to her throat. He told her that "if I ever said anything to anyone he would kill me, and if I ever come back to Croatia I would meet my end in the forest under him." He then started to hit her in the face and on the head in front of her 'brother' the elderly man.
At this point, the woman said they were taken back up the hill where the two children were "lying on the ground." She said the officer then told them to get up and strip naked too. She said the officers were hitting them with police batons as they stripped.
The woman was then given a bag and told to pick up the rubbish that was littering the ground, she said the officer continued to hit her whilst she was collecting the rubbish. Once she had collected the rubbish, they were told to walk back to Bosnia. She said they were being hit "the whole time we were walking." When they finally arrived in Bosnia, she fainted. The group ended up in Miral camp.
The woman’s account resembles those from both women and men in the last few years who have spoken to the Border Violence Monitoring Network. On February 13, a group of about 40 people, between the ages of six and 45 from Afghanistan and Pakistan reported being beaten, kicked, pushed to the ground, being forced to undress and the theft of their personal belongings.
One man remembers that they were all "forced to look on as officers touched every part of a woman’s body." The man said the incident was a "very bad thing for all of us."
On March 31, a 30-year-old man from Afghanistan, traveling with his two children aged three and ten, said that the officers "put a knife to my throat while my kids were watching." The man said he was also forced to strip naked. The man’s wife and son were also already in a camp in Zagreb and the man was trying to join her with his other two children.
This man said the officer who had put the knife to his throat hit him on the head twice with the knife’s handle. When the kids started crying they were all told to "shut up." The man said "I don’t understand how they could do this to me in front of my kids."
Nicola Bay from the DRC told AP that incidents like this "emphasized the continuing and systematic patterns of violence and abuse happening during pushbacks from Croatia to Bosnia-Herzegovina."
The Croatian authorities have repeatedly denied these kinds of allegations and said that they were looking into the allegations made by the DRC. AP said that after a quick look, the Croatian police had found "no police intervention against any female migrants on February 15."
In a statement, the Croatian interior ministry reportedly told the Guardian that there wasn’t a single piece of evidence to support the "persistent portrayal of the Croatian police as a brutal and inhumane group prone to robberies and abuse of illegal migrants." They added that the police were in fact engaged in "humane acts of saving the lives of migrants by pulling them out of minefields, ravines, rescuing them from drowning, carrying them for miles through snowstorms."
The statement concluded that the Croatian police displayed an "organized and professional approach in the protection of the state border and the external border of the EU, but above all, dedication and humanity."
The DRC said that it had recorded "over 16,000 pushbacks from Croatia to BiH in 2020 alone." More than half of those, Bay said, included allegations of violence.
UN: 'Urgent action to end violent pushbacks'
The UN migration agency IOM in Bosnia, earlier this week, called for "urgent action to end violent pushbacks and collective expulsions of migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees, including minors, along the Croatian border with BiH," after they encountered "50 exhausted migrants allegedly pushed back to Bosnia."
Charlotte Slente, the DRC’s general secretary, posted the Guardian article on her Twitter feed, calling the testimony of the Afghan women "truly shocking." Slente told the Guardian that although the DRC had recorded a "lower number of pushbacks […] in 2021, the patterns of reported violence and abuse at the Croatia-BiH border remain unchanged."
Slente said that there was a need for "systematic investigation of these reports." The European Commission has also uncovered evidence of violent pushbacks at this border in various monitoring and information gathering missions in the last few years.
Slente, however, told the Guardian that "despite the European Commission’s engagement with Croatian authorities in recent months," there had been, "virtually no progress, neither on investigations of the actual reports, nor on the development of independent border monitoring mechanisms." She said that it was "time to turn rhetoric into reality […] so that perpetrators of violence and abuse [can effectively be held] to account."