ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) — An independent news outlet reported Thursday that Croatian officials and police used a clandestine WhatsApp group to share sensitive information about migrants trying to enter the country without authorization.
An investigation published by Lighthouse Reports, a nonprofit that collaborates with other news organizations, said the participating journalists think many of the monitored migrants were later forcibly removed from Croatia, which would be illegal under international treaties.
Croatian police denied any wrongdoing.
Lighthouse Reports said it received 60 leaked screenshots and managed to identify 33 participants in an encrypted chat group used between August 2019 and February 2020.
“We found that among them were Croatian high-ranking officials,” the report, titled “Inside Croatia’s Secret WhatsApp Group,” said. “The WhatsApp group was used to exchange information about apprehensions of more than 1,300 people of mostly Afghan, Pakistani and Syrian nationality.”
The messages often included photos of individuals with their faces clearly visible and some who were forced to lie face down on the ground or to remove their shoes. The WhatsApp group also was used to exchange information about journalists visiting the border area, the report said.
It added that the WhatsApp group “sat outside any official means of communication and away from the usual monitoring procedures, and there are strong indications that the foreign nationals referenced in the messages went on to be subject to illegal pushbacks.”
The Lighthouse report was done in collaboration with Der Spiegel, Nova TV, Novosti weekly, Telegram news portal and ORF.
One screenshot published by the Telegram news portal allegedly showed Jelena Bikić, the head of Interior Ministry’s public relations’ office, saying that The Associated Press had requested permission to accompany the police manning the border with Bosnia.
“We will reject the request, so we can expect them to film on their own,” Bikic reportedly wrote. The AP could not independently verify the information.
Croatian officials said they would neither confirm nor deny the authenticity of the screenshots published in the report. Interior Minister Davor Bozinovic acknowledged the existence of a police operation named Corridor that was mentioned in the report and which he said was designed to curb illegal migration and people smuggling.
“We cannot know if these messages are authentic,” Bozinovic said of the posts quoted by Lighthouse Reports. “Corridor II-West is no secret operation. It is an action carried out against migrant smugglers and intensively in the past five years.”
In a separate statement, the Croatian Interior Ministry denied police mistreatment of migrants. The use of private chat groups by officers is not forbidden, the ministry’s statement insisted, adding that all police work is officially documented.
“The fact that some information was exchanged via encrypted application does not mean that the practice of police officers is in any way incriminating or illegal,” the Interior Ministry said.
Croatia, a European Union member which joined the EU’s visa-free Schengen Area this year, has repeatedly faced accusations of migrant pushbacks at its borders, a practice that is illegal under international refugee treaties.
Pushbacks typically involve authorities using force or collective expulsions to prevent people from exercising their right to apply for international protection if they fear for their lives or face persecution.
Migrants seek to enter Croatia from neighboring Bosnia or Serbia. They initially come from Turkey or Greece, go to North Macedonia and Serbia and Bosnia and then on toward Western Europe along what is known as the Balkan land route.
In 2019, Lighthouse Reports published video footage of uniformed men in balaclavas beating groups of migrants, saying they were Croatian police. That release resulted in an investigation and removal of police officers from duty.
Follow AP’s coverage of migration at: https://apnews.com/hub/migration