BELGRADE (Reuters) - 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 Zagreb’s determination to protect its own and the EU’s borders against illegal migrants.
Relations - never very good - between the former Yugoslav republics of Croatia, an EU member, and Serbia, which aspires to join the bloc, have been further strained by the years-long migrant crisis, 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 U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), has previously criticized Croatia’s treatment of asylum seekers but its statement on the Afghan teenager was unusually strong.
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.
The teenager, who spoke to 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.
“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.
“The allegations about the torture of migrants are absolutely incomprehensible and have no real basis.”
So far this year Croatian police have prevented 9,487 attempts at illegal border crossings and arrested 600 smugglers, some from Serbia, it added.
In 2015, hundreds of thousands of illegal migrants passed through the so-called ‘Balkan route’ on their way to the West but that flow has dwindled to a small trickle since border controls were tightened across the region in 2016.
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.
Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Gareth Jones