Mysterious men wearing balaclavas are beating up refugees at the external EU border or abandoning them at sea. Months of reporting now reveals who is behind the operations.
By Giorgos Christides, Bashar Deeb, Klaas van Dijken, Alexander Epp, Steffen Lüdke, Andrei Popoviciu, Lamia Šabić, Jack Sapoch, Phevos Simeonidis und Nicole Vögele
You can hear the blows before you can see them. The noise of blunt objects striking arms, legs and backs filters through the thick shrubbery on the border between Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. People screaming in pain, gasping and whimpering.
Powerful men in dark uniforms are standing on the Croatian side of the border on this hot June day. They are battering Afghans and Pakistanis who have come to Europe to apply for asylum.
All of the men are wearing balaclavas; one of them has also donned black sunglasses. Their uniforms bear no insignia to ensure that they are completely unrecognizable. They are completely unaware that just a few meters away, hiding behind just a couple of bushes and trees, two reporters are filming their every move.
The videos document how these masked men chase 22 refugees out of the European Union, forcing them back into Bosnia-Herzegovina. One of the masked men swings again and again with his club, aiming at the legs of the migrants and making them stumble into the chest-deep border river. He then raises his arm in a threatening gesture and yells: “Go! Go to Bosnia!”
Human rights experts refer to such operations as pushbacks, and they are illegal, violating both EU law and the Geneva Refugee Convention. The deportation of migrants must not put them in danger and once they have reached European territory, they must be given the opportunity to apply for asylum. And beating defenseless people is prohibited anyway.
NGOs, like the Border Violence Monitoring Network, and several media outlets, including DER SPIEGEL, have collected the testimony of hundreds of refugees and assembled evidence of violence committed on the EU’s external border. The incidents are not limited to the regular beatings of asylum seekers committed on the Croatian border. In the Aegean, according to witness testimony, masked men have repeatedly pulled refugees out to sea and abandoned them on inflatable rafts.
Who are these mysterious men who abuse people on the EU’s external borders? And from where did they get their orders to reject would-be asylum seekers with such brutality?
DER SPIEGEL has spent more than eight months reporting on the EU’s external border in Croatia and Greece together with several other European media outlets, including Lighthouse Reports, Swiss broadcaster SRF, the German public broadcaster ARD, the French daily Libération, the Serbian paper Novosti, the Croatian broadcaster RTL and the Dutch outlet Pointer. The reporters disguised themselves as fishermen to get closer, they flew drones over the border region, examined satellite images and analyzed hundreds of videos that were sent to them. They spoke with more than a dozen sources in various security agencies and followed the digital tracks left by the men, who posed with their balaclavas and clubs on Instagram and Facebook.
The reporting reveals a system. Special units from Croatia and Greece, trained to go after hooligans and drug dealers, have been deployed to force asylum seekers out of the EU. They mostly operate in the shadows – and are paid by the citizens of Europe.
Because of the secrecy surrounding these units, there has been almost no public debate about their activities, nor has any political justification been presented. The governments in Zagreb and Athens act as though the violence is merely a figment of journalists’ imaginations and claim there is no proof – and certainly no evidence of state involvement. But that evidence has now been found.
Croatia: Operation Koridor
Nazila has been seeking a safe place to live for almost her entire life. The 16-year-old was born in Afghanistan and lived for several years with her family in Iran. Three years ago, she reached the notorious Camp Moria on the Greek island of Lesbos, before her family finally decided to risk the Balkan Route. Now, she is sitting in the grass on the Bosnian side of the border with her little brother Farzin. Her hair parted down the middle, Nazila is wearing a loose white T-shirt. She says that if she ever finds a new home, she would like to become an actress.
As she talks, Nazila fiddles with her ring. Her most recent encounter with the masked men at the border was just two days previous. Thus far, Nazila says, the men have always managed to intercept the family when they have tried to cross the border. The men, she says, have kicked her brother and taken their money and mobile phones. “If you tell them that you refuse to go back to Bosnia, they get furious,” says Nazila. The family, she says, has not yet been allowed to apply for asylum.
The journalists involved in this story managed to film parts of the pushback of Nazila and her family. Drone images show two white vans at one of the most notorious pushback spots. Asylum seekers call the place “Three Rivers,” since it is where the Korana River, which demarcates the border here, divides into three arms. The images show six men in uniform unloading the intercepted refugees like cattle from one of the vans. At least one of the men pulls on a mask. They then escort the refugees toward Bosnia.
Croatian officials claim that the refugees are just acting. That they smear themselves with cherry syrup to make it look like they are bleeding. And that they are sometimes beaten by violent gangs on the Bosnian side of the border. But our reporters were able to film 11 illegal pushbacks. All of them took place away from the official border crossings.
The reporting shows that at least some of the pushbacks are performed by officers from the Croatian Intervention Police, a state unit that is under the command of the Interior Ministry.
Evidence for that conclusion comes first from a forensic analysis of the video material. The masked men are wearing dark blue uniforms during the pushbacks. The quilted jackets worn by the men can clearly be seen in video footage, and they are identical to the model worn by the Intervention Police: a diamond-shaped quilt pattern along with sealed, vertical zippers. The clubs carried by the men – so-called Tonfa – have a characteristic T-handle. The truncheons are part of the official equipment issued to the force.
Two of the four officers who can be seen mistreating refugees at the Croatian-Bosnian border, are wearing conspicuous jackets. If you compare the video footage with the equipment issued to the Intervention Police, clear similarities can be seen.
The quilted, diamond pattern, for example, is identical.
The zipper resembles that in the jackets worn by the Intervention Police.
Both jackets also have a vertical zipper on the side.
The video footage reveals a breast pocket. That, too, is clearly visible in the Intervention Police jacket used for comparison.
Also conspicuous: The Intervention Police use special truncheons. The handles stick out perpendicular to the club itself. These so-called Tonfa can also be seen in the video.
Second, six of the Croatian officers we interviewed were convinced after looking at the images that the masked men belonged to the Intervention Police. All of the police interviewed asked that their names not be used in order to protect their safety. But additional images from pushbacks conducted in May support their conclusion. The images show a police officer in action – on this occasion with no mask on. On his back are the easily identifiable words: “Interventna Policija,” Intervention Police.
Normally, the unit is responsible for keeping hooligans in check and conducts raids. Members receive special training, during which they are taught how to wield a truncheon. Many of the unit’s leaders are war veterans who spent the 1990s fighting against Serbian troops. Some of the men can be seen on Instagram and Facebook with right-wing extremist and fascist symbols, while others pose with their weapons and masks at the border.
For their participation in the special operations against the migrants at the border, the member of the Intervention Police receive bonus payments, say several Croatian officers, usually amounting to several hundred euros per month. While in the field, they are put up in hotels in places like the resort town of Topusko. At the border, they work together with additional Croatian police units who have better knowledge of the terrain. According to the officers, the operations are conducted under the command of high-ranking police officials in the capital of Zagreb, within the Interior Ministry’s authority. Its codename: “Koridor.”
Goran Novak, whose name has been changed for this article at his request, is part of operation Koridor. He says his unit regularly uses physical force against asylum seekers. “When we find migrants in the woods, they usually lie down on the ground in fear,” Novak says. One of the officers in his unit, he says, often walks past them and bashes their legs with his truncheon. Headquarters in Zagreb decides whether pushbacks will then be carried out. Another police officer is even more straightforward: Of course the pushbacks are illegal, he says, every policeman knows that. But the orders come from way up the command chain, out of the Interior Ministry.
DER SPIEGEL and its partners have confronted the Croatian Interior Ministry with the accusations and the video material. In response, the ministry announced that it intends to investigate the incidents on film. A spokeswoman said they would quickly send a team of experts to the sites on the border where the events were filmed. Should it turn out that Croatian officers were involved, she said, they would be held accountable.
NGOs that have spent years working in the border region are certain, however, that the Croatian government completely supports the practices. NGO employees hear horror stories on a regular basis: of dog bites, for example, and electric shocks. Refugees have said in interviews that women have been groped and men have had branches inserted in their anuses. Ana Ćuća, from the Center for Peace Studies in Zagreb, says: “Pushbacks are systematic and not the decision of an individual police officer. It is the policy of the Croatian government.”
There is plenty of evidence indicating that Croatian officials have built up a complete infrastructure for conducting the pushbacks. Satellite images show that several new dirt roads have been established in recent years. They lead from Croatian territory to the border with Bosnia-Herzegovina, where they come to an abrupt end. Torn backpacks, baby clothes and sleeping bags are lying around, bearing witness to what regularly takes place at these dead ends.
Among Bosnian police officers, the violence visited upon the refugees by Croatian units is an open secret. One Bosnian border guard says that on countless occasions, he has encountered injured and bleeding people who had been beaten on the Croatian side of the border. He is certain, he says, that the Intervention Police are responsible. “There have been cases where they have beaten up groups so badly that each of them ended up in the hospital.” In winter, he says, he sometimes finds people sitting freezing in the snow. Essentially, the border guard says, it’s torture.
Greece: “Nobody Gets Through”
When the Greek coast guard took off, Junior Amba was expecting the worst. He and his pregnant wife, refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, were left sitting in an orange life raft at night, in the dark waters of the Aegean. Masked men had dragged them out to sea, he says, recalling the story months later.
Hours prior, as dawn broke on April 21, the two had arrived on the Greek island of Samos. Photos and witness reports confirm this part of their story. They had crossed from the nearby Turkish coast on an inflatable raft.
At first, Amba says, they hid from the police in the hills. But he says the security forces quickly found them and brought them back to the sea, together with 26 other asylum-seekers. Amba says he had feared for his life on the wobbly life raft with no motor, adding that the men hadn’t even given them life vests. Only hours later were the asylum seekers rescued by Turkish border guards.
Amba and his wife managed to make it to Samos in a further attempt and were able to register at the refugee camp. Amba now has a new goal: He wants to bring to court the men he claims pushed them out to sea. A Greek lawyer has filed a lawsuit on the couple’s behalf. One of the accusations: “torture.”
In recent months, the Aegean has become a battleground. Fifteen video recordings made by asylum-seekers and the Turkish coast guard show how the violence is escalating. Men wearing balaclavas stab into refugee boats with hooks and fire warning shots into the water. The coast guard pulls refugees on orange life rafts towards Turkey and leaves them at sea, as Amba reported. It is an especially dangerous and perfidious form of pushback. A new low point in European migration policy.
DER SPIEGEL and its research partners have been reporting on the actions for about a year. There is no longer any doubt that the pushbacks are being conducted from Greek coast guard ships, even if the government claims otherwise. But who exactly are these men who, as in Croatia, frequently cover their faces? And who ordered them to do what they are doing?
One of those who should know is sitting in a taverna in a port city on a sunny spring day. We’ll call him Yannis Alexiou. Until recently he worked in a high-ranking position for the Greek coast guard and asked that his real name not be published.
Pushbacks used to be isolated incidents, Alexiou claims. He says the Turkish coast guard would intercept most of the boats as a part of the deal that the European Union signed with Turkey. But in March of 2020, Turkey briefly stopped intercepting refugees. Alexiou says that for this reason, the government of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis adopted a tougher line.
Since then, he says, special units and other security forces have been charged with pulling the asylum-seekers back out to sea and abandoning them on life rafts. In the videos shown to him by DER SPIEGEL, he is able to definitively identify the special units.
The units he’s talking about are called MYA and KEA, the coast guard’s elite. The officers wear balaclavas so that nobody can recognize them. Normally they deal with drug dealers, but now they are also pushing refugees back into the sea. “Orders are always oral in these operations,” Alexiou says, so there is no paper trail and plausible deniability can be maintained. “The instructions come from way up top, from politicians. These are criminal acts.”
Two additional coast guard officers, one of whom is on active duty, have corroborated Alexiou’s claims. And they, too, believe the special units are responsible for the pushbacks. “The order is: Nobody gets through,” says one of the officers.
The Greek government has thus far not provided a response to a detailed list of questions sent by DER SPIEGEL. In the past, Athens has always denied the practice.
The presence of the elite units on the Aegean, at least, has been documented on video. In June, refugees and the Turkish coast guard filmed as Greek authorities stopped a group of asylum seekers just off the island of Kos. The letters OEA are visible on at least three of the men. The acronym stands for one of the groups of the elite KEA unit. Turkish coast guards had to later rescue the refugees.
Brussels: Taxpayer Money for Pushbacks
Ylva Johansson has been responsible for migration policy at the European Commission since 2019. A Social Democrat from Sweden, she often emphasizes in her speeches that EU member states have the right to protect their borders, but that they still need to abide by EU law.
Thus far, Johansson’s appeals have been largely ignored. In addition to the cases in Greece and Croatia, there have also been reports of pushbacks at the Romanian, Italian and Austrian borders. The Lithuanian government, meanwhile, is pushing to legalize the practice. And in recent weeks, Poland has preferred to let asylum-seekers trapped in the Belarusian border region go hungry rather than allow them to enter.
The systematic pushbacks don’t just endanger the continued existence of the Geneva Convention on Refugees, it is also calling into question the European Union’s claims of adhering to the rule of law. For this reason, Johansson has been pushing for months for a so-called independent monitoring mechanism. According to this plan, organizations from civil society are to monitor the national officials at the EU’s external borders.
Such a monitoring mechanism is already in place in Croatia. Johansson’s team negotiated for several months before it was implemented. But the mechanism falls short of true independence. The Croatian organizations that are responsible for the monitoring are usually only allowed to perform surveillance if they provide prior notification. Furthermore, at least two of the five authorized organizations receive money from the Croatian government.
When contacted, the European Commission said that the Croatian government is responsible for selecting the organizations that take part in the monitoring mechanism. The implementation of the mechanism in practice, the Commission said in a statement, is extremely important and will be closely monitored. The Commission, according to the statement, is strongly opposed to pushbacks and is “deeply concerned” about the “persistent and increasing reports.” The Commission says that it has continuously and clearly expressed that concern to the national agencies and demanded that all allegations be investigated.
The Greek government is far away from conducting any kind of serious investigation. Athens isn’t even interested in implementing Johansson’s monitoring mechanism. Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi says he sees absolutely no reason to do so. When it comes to border protection, he says, there is no need for advice from NGOs.
If the European Commission really wants to put an end to the pushbacks, they could significantly cut funding currently provided to countries like Greece and Croatia for border protection. Thus far, though, it hasn’t managed to do so. In recent years, Brussels has sent more than 422 million euros to Athens and more than 110 million euros to Zagreb for the purpose. The German government has provided infrared cameras and all-terrain vehicles to Croatia. Interior Minister Horst Seehofer has noted that he has “absolutely nothing critical to say” about the work done by Croatia.
And European taxpayers also provide funding for the pushbacks. According to publicly available documents, the EU is paying for the lodging of the officers involved in operation Koridor at “Top-Terme Topusko.” Brussels is also covering overtime for border officials along with per diems. Even the quilted jackets worn by the Intervention Police may have been purchased with EU money. There is, at least, a tender for such jackets on the official EU portal. Brussels paid the equivalent of 380,000 euros for them.
The European Commission says it is unaware of legal violations having taken place using equipment financed by Brussels. Should that happen, the Commission says, the payments could be suspended and penalties imposed.
Were that to happen, Greece could also be affected. Many of the orange life rafts used by the Greek special forces to push refugees back out to sea were paid for by the European Union. The Greek company Lalizas won a tender for the rafts back in 2016. According to that tender, each pushback using such a life raft costs European taxpayers 1,590 euros. But the true price is far higher.