SID, Serbia (AP) — Hamid Barekzai desperately tried to cross into Croatia 17 times in one year. He says he was beaten and humiliated during most of his attempts, but the Afghan migrant isn't about to give up on his goal of getting deeper into Europe.
International rights groups say there is enough evidence that Croatian police for months have been forcing migrants and asylum-seekers back across the border to neighboring Serbia, in some cases using violence, taking their money and breaking their cellphones, without giving them an opportunity to file claims for protection.
Croatian officials have denied the groups' claims, but refugees interviewed by The Associated Press last week described how they were forced back. Croatian police didn't respond to repeated requests for comment from The Associated Press.
"I tried to enter Croatia 17 times. Out of 17 times, they beat me nine times and they took everything from me," Barekzai, the 24-year-old from Afghanistan, said at a crowded refugee center in Serbia only a few kilometers (miles) from the Croatian border where people sleep in tents often visited by rats at nighttime.
"We will not stay here. We will go. If they beat, if they kill, anything they do, we will go, we will not stay. What should we do here? Here, there is no future," said Barekzai, who said he has a degree in medicine.
A huge wave of refugees on the so-called Balkan route subsided after Hungary and other countries along the route closed their borders to migrants in March 2016. That left thousands stranded in Serbia, including women and children, who sometimes had to sleep out in the open, exposed to the extreme weather.
With Hungary's right-wing government sealing off its border with Serbia with a double razor-wire fence, the stranded migrants have no choice but try to enter the European Union via Croatia in an attempt to reach Germany, Sweden or other more prosperous central and northern European countries.
Germany took in the bulk of over a million asylum-seekers in 2015 and 2016, in stark contrast to Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia or other central or eastern European states which refuse to host migrants under the EU's programs to allocate 160,000 people stranded in Greece, Italy and the Balkans.
Many EU states, including Croatia, have dragged their feet and only about 18,000 people have been moved under the plan that expires in September. One of the arguments is that allowing entry would jeopardize Europe's security, although most recent attacks in Europe have been linked to home-grown extremists.
In its report, Human Rights Watch said the violence and summary return of asylum-seekers from Croatia without consideration of their protection needs is contrary to EU asylum laws, the bloc's charter on fundamental rights, and the international Refugee Convention.
"The fact that this type of flagrant abuse of migrants and asylum-seekers is allowed to go on at EU's borders is completely unacceptable and flies in the face of EU and international law," said Lydia Gall, Balkans and Eastern Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch.
The stranded migrants interviewed by the AP in Serbia described their dangerous journeys across the border.
"Yesterday I came back from Croatia. They (police) beat us and took 900 euros and he (a policeman) took our phones and broke them. After that, he slapped me and he behaved very badly with us," said Haider Zaman Khan from Pakistan.
Abdul Jabbar from Afghanistan said he tried to cross into Croatia three times and was beaten once.
"The second time I went with my friend. We paid taxi to Zagreb 200 euros," he said.
Instead of taking them about 300 kilometers (190 miles) to the Croatian capital, he said the taxi driver took them straight to a nearby police station.
"The police beat us, they broke our mobiles and sent us back to the border," he said.
Serbian officials and doctors in the Adasevci refugee camp said that migrants regularly return from Croatia with bruises and sometimes broken limbs.
On the Serbian side of the border, hundreds of migrants — who refuse to be registered by local authorities because of fears they would be deported — sleep out in the open in cornfields, forests and an abandoned, roofless printing factory littered with garbage and toxic waste.
The only aid this group has comes from young activists from Spain and Germany, who provide them with food and water.
"There are now around 150-200 people here without any legal status, trying to cross the border again and again," said Max Buttner of the German Rigardu non-governmental organization, which put makeshift showers inside the factory where mostly young men shaved or had a haircut as Arab folk songs blared from a transistor radio.
"It started a few months ago when they stared coming back from the border with injuries," Buttner said. "They were beaten by the police often with sticks."
Rigardu has documented numerous cases of purported violence by Croatian police after migrants got caught while crossing the border from Serbia on cargo trains or on foot through thick forest.
In one case, a 17-year-old Algerian boy was thrown to the ground, hit with batons and kicked in his head until "he lost his consciousness completely," the volunteer group's report said.
"This morning, a group came back from Zagreb. So, even when they make it to Zagreb or (further west) to Slovenia, people are deporting them back to Serbia because it is outside of the EU," Buttner said.
As he spoke, a Libyan man came limping into the factory and started bandaging his swollen ankle which he said he sustained from a baton hit by a Croatian policeman. A small crowd gathered around Ahmed Ali who said he's just back from what migrants call "the game" — an attempt to outplay the Croatian border police, like in a computer game.
"They won today, but tomorrow is another game," he said.