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Croatian border police accused of sexually assaulting Afghan migrant | Migration and development

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A woman from Afghanistan was allegedly sexually abused, held at knifepoint and forced to strip naked by a Croatian border police officer, during a search of a group of migrants on the border with Bosnia.

The European commission described it as a “serious alleged criminal action’’ and urged the Croatian authorities “to thoroughly investigate all allegations, and follow up with relevant actions”.

According to a dossier from the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), the incident occurred on the night of 15 February, in Croatian territory, a few kilometres from the Bosnian city of Velika Kladuša.

In the report, seen by the Guardian, the woman said she tried to cross the border with a group of four others, including two children, but they were stopped by an officer who allegedly pointed a rifle at them. The Afghans asked for asylum. However, according to the witnesses, one of the officers tore the papers apart and laughed.

“He insulted us, slapped the elderly man who was with us and the children, and told us to empty our pockets and show them our bags,” said the woman. “Then he took me aside and started to search me,” she said. “I insisted that he should not be touching me. He asked me why. I told him because I am a woman and a Muslim and it’s haram. The officer slapped me over the head and told me: ‘If you are Muslim, why did you come to Croatia, why didn’t you stay in Bosnia with Muslims?’”

The officer allegedly removed the woman’s headscarf and jacket.

“After he removed my jacket, he started to touch my breasts, and I started to cry,” said the woman. “I gave the police officer 50 euros that I had in my pocket, hoping that he would stop touching me. The officer ordered me to remove all my shirts and I refused. He continued to touch me on my breasts and behind, and I cried a lot. The officer told me to stop crying while gesticulating that he would strangle me if I continued. I was scared but I stopped crying.”

A blocked-off crossing on the border of Bosnia and Croatia, in the northern Bosnian village of Bosanska Bojna.
A blocked-off crossing on the border of Bosnia and Croatia, in the northern Bosnian village of Bosanska Bojna. Photograph: Elvis Barukcic/AFP/Getty

Minutes later a police van arrived and the migrants were ordered to get inside and driven for about 20 minutes before being told to get out.

An officer again asked the woman to strip naked.

“I objected and I was slapped hard in the face and told: ‘strip naked,’” she said. “I had six T-shirts and three pairs of pants on me. I removed all but one shirt and trousers and I covered myself with a blanket. An officer approached me and started to touch me over the blanket. He felt my clothes and slapped me, saying I needed to remove everything, even underwear. The officer started to search and touch me, while I was naked. He then asked me if I loved him. He told me: ‘I love you, do you love me? Do you want me to take you somewhere to be with me?’.

“I was scared and in tears. He asked to take me to the forest and asked me if I understood what he meant. I gestured to him that I didn’t understand. I did. The officer then grabbed my shoulder and pushed me in the direction of another officer. They both had flashlights on the forehead and I couldn’t see well. The officer that had touched me pulled out a knife and put it on my throat. He told me that, if I ever said anything to anyone, he would kill me, and, if I ever came back to Croatia, I would meet my end, in the forest, under him.”

The officer allegedly hit the woman again and the other members of the group on their faces, heads and legs. Then the officers reportedly ordered them to walk to Bosnia.

“The testimony is truly shocking,” said Charlotte Slente, DRC secretary general. “Despite the lower number of pushbacks recorded by the DRC in 2021, the patterns of reported violence and abuse at the Croatia-BiH [Bosnia-Herzegovina] border remain unchanged.”

“Once again, this underscores the urgent need for systematic investigations of these reports,” Slente added. “Despite the European commission’s engagement with Croatian authorities in recent months, we have seen virtually no progress, neither on investigations of the actual reports, nor on the development of independent border monitoring mechanisms, to prevent violence at the EU’s external borders. It really is time to turn rhetoric into reality – and ensure that truly independent border monitoring is put in place to prevent these abuses and ensure that credible and transparent investigations can effectively hold perpetrators of violence and abuse to account.”

The European commission said it expected the Croatian authorities to thoroughly investigate all allegations, and follow up with relevant actions.

“We are in contact with the Croatian authorities, which have committed to investigate allegations of mistreatment at their external borders, monitor the situation closely and keep the commission informed on progress made. The commission is assisting them in this task, financing an independent monitoring mechanism, implemented by Croatia, involving different stakeholders, such as NGOs and international organisations.’’

A group of migrants in a Croatian forest after crossing the Bosnia-Croatia border near the town of Velika Kladusa, in December 2020.
A group of migrants in a Croatian forest after crossing the Bosnia-Croatia border near the town of Velika Kladuša, in December 2020. Photograph: Marc Sanye/AP

According to the DRC, since May 2019 almost 24,000 migrants have been illegally pushed back to Bosnia – 547 between January and February 2021.

Hundreds of migrants walk the snowy paths of the Balkan route daily, in an attempt to reach central Europe. Most are stopped by Croatian police, searched, often allegedly robbed and, sometimes violently, pushed back into Bosnia, where, for months, thousands of asylum seekers have been stranded in freezing temperatures.

The Border Violence Monitoring Network said dozens of women and young girls have reported being “searched everywhere” by male Croatian police officers.

In response, the Croatian interior ministry said the police would investigate the allegations but that in preliminary checks there was no recorded dealings with “females from the population of illegal migrants” on the day in question.

It added: “With their humane acts of saving the lives of hundreds of migrants by pulling them out of minefields, ravines, rescuing them from drowning, carrying them for miles through snowstorms, the Croatian police showed, not only an organised and professional approach in the protection of the state border of the Republic of Croatia and the external border of the EU, but, above all, dedication and humanity.

“The persistent portrayal of the Croatian police as a brutal and inhumane group prone to robberies and abuse of illegal migrants has now become commonplace without a single [piece of] evidence.

“In order to achieve their objective, migrants are ready to use all means and even consciously risk their lives and the lives of their family members, knowing that the Croatian police will save them when they find themselves in such danger. In addition, if the Croatian police prevent them from illegally entering, they are ready to falsely accuse those same police of abuse and denying access to the system of international protection.

“After being hurt by accident, or in mutual physical conflicts, migrants always say that it was the police of the country they wish to enter that beat them.”

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MEPs join EU citizens on farm-animal cage ban

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The European Parliament has lent political weight to an EU citizens’ petition to end farming of caged animals and force-feeding of ducks and geese to make fois gras pâté, putting pressure on the European Commission to table legislation. Forced-feeding was “cruel and unnecessary” and cages so small animals cannot stand or turn around were of “grave concern” MEPs said Thursday. Over 90 percent of EU-farmed rabbits are kept in cages.

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Speculations Run Amok as Johnson Crashes ‘Awkward One-on-One’ Meeting Between Biden and Morrison

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The Australian prime minister held a meeting with the US president on the sidelines of the G7 summit in England, where the two agreed to work closely on “challenges” in the Indo-Pacific region, among other things.

Scott Morrison was hoping for a one-on-one meeting with US President Joe Biden at the G7 summit in the UK, however, event host, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson frustrated his plans by crashing their tête-à-tête.

The Australian prime minister was invited to this year’s G7 Summit in Carbis Bay, Cornwall and was set to meet Biden in a bilateral setting.

When Morrison was asked why the supposed private meeting suddenly included a third party, the prime minister said “it was an opportunity that presented because we’re all here and so it was mutual”.

“We were particularly keen to have the discussion with both parties”, he added.

The incident has prompted great speculation as to why Morrison was unable to secure a bilateral meeting with the US president.

“This seemed to me like it was Boris Johnson stepping in what seemed like it might be a little awkward meeting, given Morrison’s full-on support for [former US President Donald] Trump”, Nikki Sava, a former adviser to ex-Australian Prime Minister John Howard, told ABC’s Insiders.

Many others ventured that Johnson’s decision to make the meeting trilateral was motivated by a willingness to make discussions about climate change productive.

Labour’s Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Penny Wong called the prime minister’s inability to secure a face-to-face meeting with Biden “disappointing”, and suggested Morrison’s “stubborn refusal” to commit to net zero emissions by 2050 was damaging the country’s reputation on the world stage.

“Mr Morrison’s stubborn refusal to sign up to net zero emissions has left him isolated and left Australia isolated”, she said on Sunday.

Ex-Liberal opposition leader John Hewson, in turn, alleged Biden might “not be prepared to extend Morrison the privilege [of a one-on-one] given his indefensible irresponsibility and stubbornness on climate”.

Greens leader Adam Bandt, for his part, thinks the only reason why Morrison was invited to the G7 summit is so the heads of states and governments can rebuke him over Australia’s perceived inaction on climate change.

“Climate is a critical issue at this G7. It is the only game in town. When they sit down to discuss climate, Scott Morrison will be sitting at the kids’ table and I think part of the reason he’s been invited to this summit is so the rest of the world can give Australia a dressing down on climate”, Bandt told ABC’s Insiders on Sunday.

Meanwhile, Morrison has since rejected those claims, arguing that climate change was not a point of discussion for the meeting and would instead be a topic of conversation at Monday’s G7 Plus sessions. 

Following the trilateral meeting, Biden, Morrison, and Johnson issued in a joint statement, revealing they had “discussed a number of issues of mutual concern, including the Indo-Pacific region”.

Morrison later downplayed any suggestion of a diplomatic snub, describing it as “a meeting of great friends and allies who share a view on the world”.

“Australia has no greater friends than the United States and the United Kingdom. It was a great opportunity for my first meeting with the president. I’ve known Boris for many years, and there was a very easy understanding amongst the three of us”.



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EU relations: Berlin, Paris hoping Spain will stay close to EU’s French-German bloc | International

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France and Germany, considered the traditional axis of the European Union, are hoping that the Spanish government will remain a firm ally despite statements by Foreign Minister Arancha González Laya about seeking to diversify ties within the 27-country bloc.

In the space of just a few months, Spain has gone from embracing a G-3 of sorts with France and Germany to considering new alliances. These could include cooperation with Poland and Hungary in the battle to preserve European cohesion funds.

It makes sense to complement alliances with other states, but there is no substantial reason to justify walking away from the Franco-German axis

Ignacio Molina, senior analyst at the Elcano Royal Institute

Toward the end of former Foreign Minister Josep Borrell’s term in office, there were attempts at opening up to alternative alliances as Europe moved to a post-Brexit scenario. But it is González Laya’s first steps at the helm of the Foreign Ministry that have most clearly set the new tone.

Sources consulted by this newspaper played down this difference and instead highlighted Spain’s pro-European sentiment as a key to EU collaboration.

“It is normal for each country to seek out partners based on its own interests regarding a specific issue,” said a German diplomat. “This is not a big surprise, and you could also see it happening with Borrell. “The main thing, and there is no question about this, is that everyone should row in the same direction: for a Europe that is strong and shows solidarity.”

A French diplomatic source said that Spain remains a key player in the new European landscape that opened up when Britain left the club on January 31. “We cannot build a sovereign Europe without great involvement by Spain,” said this source. “France and Germany expect a lot from their main partners, particularly from Spain, in order to address Europe’s challenges.”

Everyone should row in the same direction: for a Europe that is strong and shows solidarity

Anonymous German diplomat

Since 1986, the year it joined the European club, Spain has stuck close to the French-German axis. “The only time we went our own way was in 2001, under [former Prime Minister] José María Aznar, and that was a strategic move prompted by the Iraq war,” notes Ignacio Molina, a senior analyst at Elcano Royal Institute. “It is not possible to distance yourself from the axis: [Hungarian PM Viktor] Orban can do it, the way that Aznar did, but everything in the EU goes through that core group.”

In early February, González Laya told this newspaper that she wished to cooperate with France and Germany on some policies, but not on all. “On other issues, the geometry will be a little bit different,” she said, citing a few countries from Eastern Europe that follow opposite policies from Spain on issues such as immigration or the rule of law. In spite of this, Spain could consider these countries allies on matters such as EU cohesion policy.

In her initial days in office, the new minister received Mediterranean colleagues first, notably Italy’s Luigi di Maio and Greece’s Nikos Dendias. But two sources who spoke on condition of anonymity said there is no particular state strategy behind the move. Instead, it is González Laya’s own take on the role that Spain should play within a bloc that has just lost its second-biggest economy, triggering a political reshuffle on the continent.

The minister will appear before Congress for the first time this coming Thursday, when she will discuss the main lines of her work as head of Spanish diplomacy.

González Laya was asked to come Berlin by Germany’s foreign minister, the social-democrat Heiko Maas, in the welcome letter he sent her following her appointment. While these letters are part of the protocol, they do not always include an invitation. No date has been set yet for the meeting.

This week, a lower-level bilateral meeting between Spain and France is taking place in Madrid, where the Spanish Secretary of State for European Affairs, Juan González-Barba, will meet with his French counterpart, Amélie de Montchalin. These two officials will also meet with a Portuguese representative to discuss electricity connections between their countries.

The Elcano analyst trusts that González Laya’s early remarks will not result in a more distant relationship between Spain, France and Germany. “It makes sense to complement alliances with other states, but there is no substantial reason to justify walking away from the Franco-German axis,” said Ignacio Molina.

English version by Susana Urra.

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