Evidence gathered by Lighthouse Reports, a non-profit organisation, reveals that migrants have been beaten and shot at in recent months during so-called “pushback” operations carried out by masked men in Croatia, Romania and Greece.
Although their clothing bears no insignia, these masked men are members of national police units which receive funding from the EU to patrol borders, according to the investigation, produced in partnership with Der Spiegel, SRF Rundshau and ARD.
The findings have fuelled concerns about Europe’s growing use of pushbacks – a form of deportation which violates EU law and the Geneva Refugee Convention – and the EU’s “complicity” with the practice.
It comes as the UK plans to start using pushback tactics in the English Channel, in a bid to force asylum seekers attempting to reach the UK on small boats back to France – which experts say will breach maritime laws and put migrants at severe risk.
In footage filmed on Croatian soil in June as part of the investigation, armed men wearing balaclavas can be seen beating Afghan and Pakistani asylum-seeking men with batons, forcing them into the river Korana to Bosnia and Herzegovina.
One of the masked people can be seen crashing his baton onto the men’s legs so that they stumble into the border river, where the water is chest-high, before shouting: “Go to Bosnia.”
In interviews with the migrants directly after the incident, they said they were from Afghanistan and Pakistan and that they requested asylum when they encountered Croatian police officers. They revealed marks left by the beatings on their bodies.
Analysis of the footage reveals that the masked men were equipped and had uniforms consistent with the Croatian riot police, which receive funding from the EU to assist with border security.
Croatian officers interviewed for the investigation said they believed the masked men in the video were riot police officers. This assessment is further supported by a separate recording from May this year which shows an officer carrying out pushbacks who has riot police markings on his uniform.
One Bosnian police officer, who did not wish to be named, described what was being done to migrants by the Croatian officers as “a rape of certain people”, saying it is “torture”.
“I’ve seen people beaten, injured, bloody, many times… There were minors, 16 year olds. There were also kids, though kids were not tortured,” he said.
The officer said Croatian police carrying out the pushbacks “try to hide themselves” by “taking off their insignia and putting masks on their faces”. He added: “What they are doing is against the law, therefore, it’s not legal neither from the Croatian nor the Bosnian side.”
The men are appointed by the state to carry out these operations, for which they receive extra pay, as well as additional cash which some of them take from asylum seekers, he said.
“Their activities are not controlled by anyone. Their task is to only, by any means necessary, return back all those migrants who are found illegally on the territory of Republic of Croatia, provided that almost no one sees them,” he added.
Nazila, a 16-year-old Afghan national, who is currently in Bosnia with her parents and younger brother, said she recently witnessed police kick her brother and steal his money as the family tried to cross to Croatia.
The teenager, who has lived in Iran for most of her life, before her family fled to Europe, said: “The commandos hit him, kicked him in the back and under the ribs. They said: ‘Go back, go back to Afghanistan’.
“They say it’s not possible [to ask for asylum] in Croatia. If you tell them that you are not going back to Bosnia, they get angry.”
Jelena Sesar, researcher at Amnesty International’s Europe office, told The Independent it was “undeniable” that the masked men’s uniforms, weapons and equipment were those used exclusively by Croatia’s riot police.
“What is particularly disturbing is that the European Commission continues turning a blind eye to the staggering violations of the EU laws and keeps financing police and border operations in these countries,” she added.
Ms Sesar pointed out that in July, shortly after the video was recorded, Croatia was awarded an emergency funding grant from the European Commission of €14m (£11.9m).
“As in previous years, some of these funds are covering the equipment and even the salaries of police officials on the border thereby directly implicating the EU assistance in blatant violations of EU’s laws by Croatian police,” she said.
The investigation also collected publicly available video footage of 635 alleged pushback incidents carried out by Greek border officers in the Aegean since March 2020 – 15 of which involved masked men.
In one of the incidents at least 25 asylum seekers on a dinghy tried to reach the shore of the island of Kos. They were blocked by the Greek coast guard who appear to hit them with a stick and later shoot at the water. The group was later picked up by the Turkish coast guard.
Separate footage from Romania shows border guards undertaking pushback operations at the border with Serbia. The investigation gathered testimony from men and women who were caught up in these pushbacks testifying that they had been violently assaulted during the same operation.
Catherine Woollard, executive director at European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), said the “shocking” findings added to an “emerging body of evidence about violent pushbacks taking place at the EU border”, which she said were “both illegal and morally repugnant”.
She called on the EU Commission to “get tougher” when it comes to non-compliance with obligations that cover action and treatment of people at the borders.
“We see a situation of tolerance of these actions, or one that can be described as impunity when it comes to what are clear violations taking place,” she added.
A Croatian spokesperson said the director of police would proceed to determine both the time and place of origin of the video recording in order to determine “all the relevant facts”, and that they would “urgently send an expert team” to the area.
An EU spokesperson said it “strongly opposed” pushback practices and had “continuously made it clear” to national authorities that any such practices are “illegal and that they should investigate any allegations, with a view to establishing the facts and to properly follow-up any wrongdoing”.
“In this regard, the commission continues to have serious concerns based on evidence and reports presented by both the European parliament and UNHCR, which it has raised with national authorities,” they added.
The Greek and Romanian authorities have not responded to a request for comment.
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