BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Migrants fleeing wars and persecution are experiencing widespread harassment and abuse by police as they cross Serbia while trying to find shelter in Western European states, a leading rights group said Wednesday.
Human Rights Watch said thousands of people fleeing Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and other violence-ravaged countries in Asia and Africa have been targets of assaults, threats, insults and extortion as they pass through Serbia on their way to the border with Hungary, where they try to sneak into the European Union.
"Serbian authorities should be protecting asylum seekers and immigrants, including children fleeing war and persecution, not allowing the police to victimize them," HRW researcher Emina Cerimovic said.
The police denied the accusations Wednesday, saying the migrants have not complained to the Serbian authorities.
"The claims made by migrants and asylum seekers (to HRW) have not been supported by facts and evidence which would help in the establishing of concrete responsibility of police employees and border police," a police statement emailed to The Associated Press said.
HRW's report specified various cases of harassment and abuse that included forced expulsion of the migrants and asylum seekers, including children, to neighboring Macedonia from where they originally crossed into Serbia.
The report said that in one instance, police found some 20 migrants, mostly Syrians and Afghans, on the streets and in a makeshift camp on the border with Hungary. The migrants said the police forced them to hand over their money and mobile phones, insulting them and threatening violence and deportation. Five, including children, said policemen hit, kicked, and punched them. Two said police sprayed them in the eyes with pepper spray.
Cerimovic urged Serbia, which is seeking EU entry, to adhere to international refugee conventions.
"If Serbia truly aspires to join the EU it should put a stop to any police abuse and promptly investigate allegations of ill-treatment," she said.