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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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World’s poorest bear brunt of climate crisis: 10 underreported emergencies | Global development

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From Afghanistan to Ethiopia, about 235 million people worldwide needed assistance in 2021. But while some crises received global attention, others are lesser known.

Humanitarian organisation Care International has published its annual report of the 10 countries that had the least attention in online articles in five languages around the world in 2021, despite each having at least 1 million people affected by conflict or climate disasters.

The findings, from a collaboration between the charity and international media monitoring service Meltwater, highlighted how the accelerating climate crisis is fuelling many of the world’s emergencies, said Laurie Lee, CEO of Care International UK.

“There is deep injustice at the heart of it. The world’s poorest are bearing the brunt of climate change – poverty, migration, hunger, gender inequality and ever more scarce resources – despite having done the least to cause it,” he said. “Add Covid-19 into the mix and we see decades of progress towards tackling inequality, poverty, conflict and hunger disappearing before our eyes.”

The number of people in need of humanitarian aid is expected to rise to 274 million this year, or one in 28 people, and more than 84 million people have been uprooted. Lee highlighted the impact of the UK’s 2021 foreign aid budget cuts, saying that it “resulted in over £166m less in humanitarian aid reaching the 10 countries mentioned in this report compared to 2019.”

Zambia

First on the list, Zambia has 1.2 million malnourished people and about 60% of the 18.4 million population living below the international poverty line of $1.90 (£1.40) a day. Women produce 60% of the country’s food supply, but families headed by women faced higher poverty rates than those headed by men.

Food insecurity in Zambia has primarily been blamed on prolonged drought, but rising corn prices and flooding have contributed.

Ukraine

Currently in the news amid renewed tension between Russia and the west, in Ukraine, 3.4 million people were in need of assistance in 2021, after years of conflict.

Humanitarian aid from the Red Cross is distributed in Donetsk, Ukraine, March 2021.
Humanitarian aid from the Red Cross is distributed in Donetsk, Ukraine, March 2021. Photograph: Alexander Usenko/EPA

“While a comprehensive political solution for the conflict is still not in sight, people in eastern Ukraine are daily forced to put their lives on the line. Along the 420-km ‘contact line’ that separates Ukrainian government-controlled territory from that of the separatists, the situation is particularly dangerous,” the report said.

Malawi

Malawi is facing a food insecurity crisis, with 17% of the population severely malnourished. Droughts, floods and landslides have been predicted to worsen over the coming years. Cyclone Idai in 2019 severely affected harvests and left tens of thousands displaced.

“The climate crisis is hitting people here earlier and much harder than the people of the global north,” said Chikondi Chabvuta, advocacy lead for Care International in Malawi. “We are already seeing real-life consequences with delayed rainfall, heavy and destructive rainfall, unpredictable rainfall patterns, infertile soil, destroyed harvests.”

Displaced people wait for food distribution in Central African Republic.
Displaced people fleeing rebel attacks in Bangassou wait for food distribution, Central African Republic, February 2021. Photograph: Adrienne Surprenant/AP

Central African Republic

In Central African Republic (CAR), where civil war has exacerbated the humanitarian crisis, half of the population face food insecurity. A ceasefire agreement struck in October 2021 is fragile and more than 700,000 people have been internally displaced – more than half children. CAR is ranked second to last globally on the Human Development Index. “On average, a child attends school for just under four years, and girls for only three,” the report said. About 30% of children are in work.

Guatemala

Poverty, violence and the climate crisis are leading problems in Guatemala, which is on the migratory route to Mexico and the US. Two-thirds of the population live on less than $2 a day and 38% of the population face food insecurity.

Camps sheltering those sent back by Mexico are overcrowded, meaning many live on the streets, the report said. Guatemala is considered one of the world’s most dangerous countries, with 3,500 murders in 2020 alone. “Although about 3.3 million people in the country rely on humanitarian aid, the frequent occurrence of violence is in many cases a barrier to accessing urgently needed assistance,” said the report.

Colombia

Nearly 5 million people live under the control of armed groups, and 6.7 million people are dependent on humanitarian aid.

Food insecurity has been blamed on an economic recession caused by the pandemic. It has particularly affected indigenous communities, those uprooted internally and 1.8 million Venezuelan refugees, mainly in northern Colombia.

Colombian Marine Infantry soldiers patrol the streets of Buenaventura, where members of the local armed group are fighting for control of drug trafficking in the area.
Colombian Marine Infantry soldiers patrol the streets of Buenaventura, where members of the local armed group are fighting for control of drug trafficking in the area. Photograph: Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images

Burundi

Ranked as the country gaining the least attention in 2020, Burundi was seventh in 2021 when 2.3 million of the 12.6 million population were in need of humanitarian assistance.

The country secured only 27% of the $195m pledged in aid. Extreme weather, hunger and political unrest were among the challenges faced by Burundians. In a country where 90% of people rely on small-scale agriculture, only a third of land is suitable for cultivation, due to drought, floods and landslides. The report also highlighted structural discrimination against women – 20% of those in Burundi’s decision-making bodies are female, while 60% of the agricultural workforce are women.

Niger

Niger is deeply vulnerable to climate disasters. Persistent droughts and recurring floods have had catastrophic consequences: nearly 3 million people rely on humanitarian aid. About 1.8 million children need food assistance and almost half of all children under five are malnourished.

Militias in eastern and northern Niger have caused 313,000 people to be displaced as of last September. “Providing emergency relief is often hindered by the fact that infrastructure is destroyed, operation areas are marked by violence and rural areas are difficult to access,” the report said.

Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe has acute food insecurity with increasingly extreme climate conditions and economic mismanagement causing 6.6 million people to need humanitarian aid. More than a third of the population (5.7 million) lack sufficient food.

Heavy rains destroy crops in Zimbabwe, January 2022. The country suffers acute food insecurity.
Heavy rains destroy crops in Zimbabwe, January 2022. The country suffers acute food insecurity. Photograph: Aaron Ufumeli/EPA

“The harvests in many rural areas are not sufficient to secure basic food supplies and other needs. In these regions, households must rely on local markets when supplies are depleted – but the prices there are unaffordable for many,” the report said.

Honduras

Poverty and violence have exacerbated the humanitarian situation in Honduras, prompting many to leave for the US. About 70% of the population live in poverty, according to a 2020 study.

There have been problems with farming due to drought, hurricanes and floods. The country has 937,000 displaced people, the highest number in Latin America.

“In Honduras, people therefore often talk about poverty being female, as it is mostly women who stay behind with the children,” the report said.

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Polish minister warns of risk of war in Europe

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“It seems that the risk of war in the OSCE area is now greater than ever before in the last 30 years,” Poland’s foreign minister, Zbigniew Rau, who currently chairs the Vienna-based intergovernmental body, said Thursday during the latest round of talks on Russia. Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, said the same day Russia saw no reason for further talks with Nato, as its demands were being ignored.

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Covid created 20 new ‘pandemic billionaires’ in Asia, says Oxfam | Global development

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Twenty new “pandemic billionaires” have been created in Asia thanks to the international response to Covid-19, while 140 million people across the continent were plunged into poverty as jobs were lost during the pandemic, according to Oxfam.

A report by the aid organisation says that by March 2021, profits from the pharmaceuticals, medical equipment and services needed for the Covid response had made 20 people new billionaires as lockdowns and economic stagnation destroyed the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of others.

From China, Hong Kong, India and Japan, the new billionaires include Li Jianquan, whose firm, Winner Medical, makes personal protective equipment (PPE) for health workers, and Dai Lizhong, whose company, Sansure Biotech, makes Covid-19 tests and diagnostic kits.

The total number of billionaires in the Asia-Pacific region grew by almost a third from 803 in March 2020 to 1,087 by November last year, and their collective wealth increased by three-quarters (74%), the report said.

The report said the richest 1% owned more wealth than the poorest 90% in the region.

Mustafa Talpur, campaigns lead at Oxfam Asia, said: “It is outrageous and highly unacceptable that poor people in Asia [were left at] the mercy of the pandemic facing severe health risks, joblessness, hunger and pushed into poverty – erasing the gains made in decades in the fight against poverty.

“While rich and privileged men increase their fortunes and protect their health, Asia’s poorest people, women, low-skilled workers, migrants and other marginalised groups are being hit hardest,” he added.

In 2020, an estimated 81m jobs disappeared and loss of working hours pushed a further 22–25 million people into working poverty, according to the International Labour Organization. Meanwhile, the Asia-Pacific region’s billionaires saw their wealth increase by $1.46tn (£1.06tn), enough to provide a salary of almost $10,000 (£7,300) to all those who lost a job.

Covid has claimed more than a million lives in just Asia, and countless more deaths will result from increased poverty and disruptions to health services. The report said women and girls were more likely to have lost jobs or income. Women are also more likely to work in frontline roles, putting them at further risk; in the Asia-Pacific region, women account for more than 70% of healthcare workers and 80% of nurses.

In south Asia, people from lower castes do the bulk of sanitation work, often without protective equipment, and face poverty and discrimination that prevent them from accessing health services. The pandemic has exacerbated this, said Oxfam.

The wealth gap is set to grow. Credit Suisse forecasts that, by 2025, there will be 42,000 more people worth more than $50m in Asia-Pacific and 99,000 billionaires. The number of millionaires by 2025 is projected to be 15.3 million, a 58% increase on 2020. Both the World Bank and IMF have said that coronavirus will cause a significant increase in global economic inequality.

Talpur said: “The political system is protecting the interests of the tiny rich elite. Governments have consistently failed to work for the majority during the pandemic. It was the juncture of global solidarity, but rich countries and big pharmaceutical companies turned away their faces.”

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