BIHAC, Bosnia (Reuters) - Many refugees and migrants, some showing their cuts and bruises, accuse Croatian police of beating them before turning them back as they try to cross from Bosnia, an increasingly popular Balkan transit point as other borders into the European Union close.
Croatia, the EU’s newest member, denies accusations its border police are rough handling would-be refugees fleeing war and poverty in Asia and North Africa to find a new life in mainstream Europe.
It dismisses reports of police brutality and says the Croatian border force is acting in line with international standards.
Many of the estimated 5,000 migrants camped near the border tell a different story, though.
“Croatia is a big problem,” shouted a group of Pakistanis interviewed in the woods where they live in tents near the town of Bihac, each showing the cracked screens of their mobile phones which they say were damaged by Croatian police.
“The Croatian police, they see someone who is Arabic, a Muslim, and look what happened,” said Mohammad, 40, from Gaza speaking in Italian, showing bruises on his back, arms and knees.
“Racist, racist Croats,” said Mohammad whose goal is to reach Italy, where his wife and daughter live.
Bosnia, which itself went through a devastating war in the 1990s, is coping with a sudden influx of refugees and migrants. About 11,000 people from Asia and North Africa are registered as arriving so far this year.
The impoverished country was spared the refugee influx of 2015 and 2016, when more than one million refugees passed through the Balkans on their way to the European Union. But as borders have closed elsewhere, Bosnia has become a new transit route.
The migrants, most of them from Afghanistan, Iran, Syria and Pakistan, arrive from Serbia and Greece via Albania and Montenegro, according to the Bosnian authorities.
Although officials say 60 percent of those who have arrived have already left the country, volunteers and aid workers who help migrants say at least 5,000 people are stranded in Bosnia.
“Each day about 50 to 60 new people arrive, and I really don’t know whether they will also leave the country,” said Amira Hadzimehmedovic, a refugee camp manager for the International Organisation for Migrations in Bihac. “It’s very, very difficult to give the correct numbers.”
The bulk of them are concentrated in two northwestern towns, Bihac and Velika Kladusa, close to the border with Croatia. They live in poor conditions, squeezed into abandoned buildings and tent settlements scattered in the woods.
Most days they lie in makeshift camps, communing with their mobile phones or queuing for meals distributed by aid groups, waiting for their chance to continue their journey.
But neighbouring Croatia, which has a 1,000-kilometre long border with Bosnia, has sealed its borders and is sending back to Bosnia anyone they find with illegal status.
Many migrants showed a Reuters cameraman bruises they say were sustained when Croatian police officers beat them up. They say their belongings were often damaged or taken away.
In a statement to regional N1 television on Tuesday, Croatia’s interior ministry said it once again fully dismissed allegations of police brutality.
“The Croatian police act, respecting national jurisdiction and international standards,” it said, and also implied that bruises and abrasions were inflicted in fights between migrants themselves.
Behir from Iran, 35, says he was caught with his friends in Croatia near the border with Slovenia, and spent one day in detention before he was deported to Bosnia. While in Croatia, he asked to apply for asylum but they would not let him fill in papers, he said. Instead, the police beat him.
Several other people, after praying together in the small courtyard of a ruined student dormitory in Bihac to celebrate the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday, told similar stories.
“I plan to cross (the border) with someone, (while) some people go by themselves,” said Samir from Islamabad, who says that he had worked as an IT technician in Pakistan and wants to go to Italy or Spain.
“It depends on luck. If we are lucky, we’ll cross.”
Writing by Daria Sito-Sucic in Sarajevo; Editing by Richard Balmforth