Croatia cracks down on migrants as Europe beefs up border checks

Lajla Veselica - Agence France-Presse
Croatia cracks down on migrants as Europe beefs up border checks
This photographs taken on November 8, 2023 shows the Lipa migrant camp close to Bihac, where migrants arrive after being pushed back across the Korana river by Croatian police. Less than a year since Croatia proudly joined Europe's borderless zone some of Croatia’s EU peers including Slovenia and Italy in October reimposed border controls over concerns about migratory pressure, on the rise through the Balkans, and the situation in the Middle East. Two migrants camp are set in Bihac. Lipa camp for men only with the capacity of 1,500 and Borici camp where 200 migrants, families and minors.
AFP / Damir Sencar

BREGANA, Croatia — It took Croatia years to finally enter into Europe's passport-free travel zone that promised to ease access for other European nationals travelling to the country and boost its tourism-driven economy. 

But less than a year since its border crossings with European Union peers were dismantled, temporary checks have been reintroduced amid a surge in illegal migration across the region.

Neighbouring Slovenia re-introduced checks along its borders last month, following similar moves by Italy and other EU countries.

"People ask themselves what kind of fence could stop these people who passed so many frontiers and countries," said Perica Matijevic, the head of the Krnjak municipality near Croatia's border with Bosnia that has been a hot-spot for crossings.

Matijevic, who referred to a registration camp for incoming migrants that is being prepared in the area, is not alone in his weariness.

Locals in the scarcely populated area complain that groups of migrants -- almost all of whom are young men -- moving through the area have only increased anxieties. 

"One should feel safe in his own house but migrants pass through our yards ... there were thefts, it's not pleasant," said economics student Sara Matijevic from the village of Dugi Dol, close to where the camp will open.

'Like animals'

Croatia, which guards one of EU's longest external land borders, has long been a magnet for illegal migrants hoping to enter the bloc.

Over the years, the country gained an infamous reputation for fiercely patrolling its borders, leading to accusations that its authorities used violence to push back EU-bound refugees.

In 2021, Zagreb was forced to admit as much following the publication of an investigation by major European media outlets that uncovered alleged systematic targeting of refugees by special units in Croatia, Greece and Romania.

Migrants said little has changed. 

Atefa, a 29-year-old Afghan refugee who did not provide her surname for security reasons, said Croatian police treated her and eight fellow migrants "like animals".

Along with forcing them to collect garbage and pouring water in their shoes, officers groped women and made obscene noises, she told AFP.

"My breasts are still hurting me ... and they did all that with a smile," Atefa said from a camp in Bosnia's Bihac.

Like many Afghans, Atefa left the war-torn country two years ago as the Taliban seized control following years of conflict.

The ongoing humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan along with a massive earthquake in Turkey and Syria in February and renewed unrest in the Middle East has left many fearing that the surge in illegal migration will continue.   

At the Bregana-Obrezje crossing, one of Croatia's 73 former land border posts with other EU countries, travellers and residents said that the temporary checks were necessary.

"I don't mind border controls ... it all goes smoothly," said Visnja Krajnovic, a retired economist from Bregana, who said she sees migrants on a daily basis in her hometown along the Slovenian border. 

Stripped and beaten

Last year, nearly half of the more than 300,000 EU-bound migrants used the so-called Balkans route, the highest number since the 2015-2016 refugee crisis, according to the bloc's border surveillance agency Frontex.

During the first 10 months this year nearly 100,000 migrants relied on the route with almost 63,000 -- notably Afghans, followed by Turks, Moroccans and Pakistanis -- crossing illegally into Croatia, official figures show.

The number represents a 73 percent jump compared with the same period last year.

This year a total of 2,559 persons reported violent pushbacks to Bosnia from Croatia, mirroring figures from 2022, according to the Danish Refugee Council.

But rights groups warn that violence against refugees will likely increase as security is beefed up across Croatia's borders. 

For Raz Mohammad Saifi, 21, the years-long sojourn from his native Afghanistan to the Croatian border has been an arduous and sometimes violent journey that has seen him travel overland from Turkey to Bosnia. 

After entering Croatia, Saifi said he was assaulted by police. 

"When the police caught us, they stripped and searched us, took our mobile phones, money, shoes," Saifi told AFP, saying police also sicced dogs on him and others before forcing the group to cross a river back into Bosnia. 

Residents from the border village of Trzac gave Saifi and four others clothes and shoes before an aid group organised the men's transport to a nearby camp.

Despite the beatings, Saifi has refused to give up on his dream of living in France, while stressing that he and others meant no harm to locals who remained fearful of migrants.

"If I wanted to be a criminal, if I was willing to kill, I would have stayed in Afghanistan," he said. 

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