A cohort of NGOs monitoring border violence against migrants along the Balkan route have accused the Croatian police of spray-painting refugees with orange paint. In early May, the organisation No Name Kitchen published photos of men with painted orange crosses on their heads, saying that Croatian authorities had “[tagged] them like livestock”.


No Name Kitchen is based out of Velika Kladusa, a town in Bosnia-Herzegovina on the border with Croatia, and Sid, a Serbian town also on the Croatian border. The NGO works with volunteers to provide aid to people moving along the Balkan migrant route towards central Europe. 

No Name Kitchen said in a Facebook post that on 6 May Croatian border police robbed a group of migrants of their money and their mobile phones and spray-painted them before sending them back to the area of Poljana in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The group said a similar incident occurred a few days before, on 2 May, when a group of men were sent back to Glinica, a town in Bosnia-Herzegovina just next to the border with Croatia. 

A man who was spray-painted in the incident on 2 May. His face has been blurred for privacy reasons. All photos were taken by anonymous sources of the organisation No Name Kitchen.

A group of men who were spray-painted in the incident on 6 May. Their faces have been blurred for privacy.
 
The Croatian Ministry of the Interior published a response to the allegations on 13 May, after the British newspaper the Guardian published an article about the incident. It called the accusations “completely absurd” and accused the Guardian journalist of orchestrating a “pre-meditated attack against the Republic of Croatia”. 

The FRANCE 24 Observers spoke to Jack Sapoch, the coordinator of No Name Kitchen’s border violence reporting.

“The men were forcibly spray-painted and had their money and shoes stolen”

The spray-painting incident first came on our radar at the beginning of May. We have an extensive network of local contacts living in border villages who are sympathetic to the plight of migrants and relay information to us.

A man who has a house in one of the villages on the border ran into a group of migrants near his house and he mentioned it to us. Then several days later, we received photos [of people with their heads spray-painted] from another one of our contacts who had just spoken to the group of men. They reported that the men had been forcibly spray-painted by Croatian police officers and had had their money and shoes stolen.

One of the men involved in the incident on 2 May, with spray paint on his clothes.

“It is a degrading and humiliating thing to do”
 

This is the first time we’ve seen spray-paint be used. It was surprising to see. It doesn’t make sense, because it’s drawn attention to what’s happening here. When the police break somebody’s phone or take their shoes, it’s certainly cruel but it also has a logic behind it: it deters them from trying to cross the border again on the same day. But the spray-paint is strange. Maybe they do it because it makes the migrants easier to identify. Obviously it is a degrading and humiliating thing to do to someone.

A man who was spray-painted on 6 May. His face has been blurred for privacy.
 
It’s distressing to see this case of police officers abusing their authority, and to see that the Croatian government has totally disregarded it. This is while we’re receiving reports that even at this time, the level of aggression from Croatian police officers directed at migrants remains pretty high.


These two photographs were taken on 7 May. Faces have been blurred for privacy.
 
Croatia’s border police has a history of violence towards refugees trying to enter the country. The FRANCE 24 Observers spoke to Karim Abdmeziane, a 36-year-old Algerian refugee who crossed the border from Bosnia-Herzegovina to Croatia in 2018. He was violently pushed back to Bosnia by the Croatian police three times before he successfully made it to Slovenia. 
 

“It’s just like being in a war”

The first time I tried to cross they stole my mobile phone. I had been walking four days in the snow and rain. The second time they stole my possessions and pushed me back. The third time they stole my phone and all my money – over €1000 – and hit me with an electric cord. The Croatian police only care about money. Sometimes you have to give them money to make them let you go. But they just steal everything anyway. That third time they hit me so hard and pushed me all the way back to the border. You walk for days in rain and mud, you have nothing to eat, you hide in the forest, and you are beaten. It’s just like being in a war.

These are the injuries Karim Abdmeziane received from Croatian border police on an attempt to cross the border in 2018. He sent us this photo.

Human Rights Watch in July 2019 called on the EU to stop Croatia’s unlawful pushbacks of migrants to neighbouring countries. A report by the Border Violence Monitoring Network states that in Croatia, “Illegal removal practices have not stopped, in spite of the formal closure of borders” during the global Covid-19 crisis.  

Written by Catherine Bennett (@cfbennett2).