After months of official denials, Croatia’s president has admitted that the country’s police are involved in the violent pushbacks of migrants and asylum seekers apprehended inside the country.

The best chance for thousands of refugees stuck in Bosnia is to cross its border with Croatia to make it to the European Union. For the past year there has been repeated evidence of police using force against those who have made it across the border and then dumping them back in Bosnia.

In an interview with Swiss television, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović appeared to admit the pushbacks were taking place. She denied they were illegal and also admitted that police used force when doing so.

“I have spoken with the interior minister, the chief of police, and officers on the ground and they assured me they have not been using excessive force,” said Grabar-Kitarović, according to reports of the interview. “Of course, a little bit of force is needed when doing pushbacks.”

Human Rights Watch called on the government to stop the process as pushing people back across the border is illegal under international law.

“The denial of Croatia’s abusive border policies by Zagreb and EU institutions is no longer tenable,” said Lydia Gall, a senior researcher for Balkans and the Eastern EU at Human Rights Watch. “Hundreds, if not thousands, of migrants and asylum seekers have been ill-treated by Croatian border officials and deserve redress and justice.”

There are more than 5,000 people in Bosnian towns, living in makeshift facilities without proper amenities and hoping to get to the EU.

EU institutions have turned a blind eye to the practice of pushing back refugees as the issue of halting migration flows is politically fraught.

Gall said: “The European commission needs to protect EU law and fundamental rights at external borders by opening infringement proceedings against Croatia and calling on authorities to investigate alleged abuse and provide fair and efficient access to asylum.”