A previously-suppressed Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) report confirms serious ill-treatment of people on the move by Croatian police. Separately, the first half-year report of Croatia’s Independent Border Monitoring Mechanism confirms that police are routinely conducting illegal removals of people to Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). Days before the publication of either report, EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson praised Croatia’s handling of earlier pushback revelations. Slovenia says an almost 60 per cent increase in asylum applications on the territory in 2021 is due to Croatian non-cooperation on expulsions. Despite the opening of a new, EU-funded camp, NGOs worry for asylum seekers facing cold, isolation and evictions in BiH.

During an ad-hoc visit to Croatia in August 2020, the Council of Europe CPT found numerous “credible” and “convincing” reports of serious ill-treatment of people on the move by Croatian police officers. Illegal police behaviour included hitting people with batons, forcing them into rivers with their hands tied, driving them back across the border without allowing them to seek asylum in the EU, firing guns in close proximity, and subjecting them to sexual humiliation. The investigators also found a notebook in a police station listing pushbacks: it stated that, in under a month, 2,373 refugees had been “intercepted or diverted”. Der Spegiel sources make identical claims that: “there are notebooks in which thousands of pushbacks are informally noted [… the] Interior Ministry is updated informally every day”. When the police noticed the CPT delegation had discovered these recordings, they tried to “forcibly remove” the logbook. In response to the findings, ECRE member Amnesty International EU said: “the violence and abuse documented here point to a systematic and deliberate practice designed to punish those who try to cross the border”. Amnesty also noted that the European Commission has been reluctant to take any decisive action against Croatia, despite clear breaches of EU law. The CPT however called on Croatia itself to take “strong measures” against mistreatment and abuse of people on the move.

The flagship report of Croatia’s Independent Border Monitoring Mechanism was released on 3 December before later being retracted by authorities. The Croatian-language version that was public for a short period is available on ECRE’s site. The findings confirm the thousands of accounts made in recent years of people assaulted and expelled by Croatian police as they try to enter the country. The report states that: “members of the intervention police acted illegally by returning irregular migrants from Croatia to BiH outside the framework of national and international law”.  The mechanism emphasises that such acts jeopardise people’s right to seek international protection. NGOs have long since urged for the establishment of a border monitoring mechanism, but feared the body would lack sufficient independence, resources and powers to effectively hold the Croatian government to account.

On 2 December just prior to the release of the two damaging reports, Commissioner Johansson commented on the disciplinary procedures against three police officers exposed for conducting pushbacks, saying: “The Croatian authorities immediately acted … I really welcome this attitude from the Croatian government to deal with this with open eyes and to investigate and to take actions when allegations are being founded”. For Jelena Sesar of Amnesty International however: “Until the investigation is fully concluded and we have evidence that this incident was taken seriously, [and] the accountability of perpetrators was ensured […] I don’t think we can comment on the seriousness of this investigation”. The government characterises the findings of the media investigation as cases of “individual misconduct”, despite NGO reports of a “well-established illegal modus operandi for dealing with migrants”. Interior minister Davor Bozinovic has not responded to claims made by insiders that the pushbacks were carried out on the orders of his ministry.

Slovenian interior minister Aleš Hojs claims his police force has “never” pushed people back at the border, while concurrently maintaining that the key to the country’s border management is summarily returning people to Croatia. “It is true that […] it was agreed with the Croats on the basis of bilateral agreements to return them to Croatia. This worked quite well until a month or two ago.[…] However, things changed in that the Croats started somewhat informally instructing the migrant population to ask for international protection in Slovenia” said Hojs. According to the minister, this has driven an almost 60% increase in requests for international protection in Slovenia in 2021.  Over the same period, the number of “intercepted illegal migrants” dropped by 40%, he said.

The EU-funded Lipa camp in BiH opened on 19 November after several months of delays. Prior to the opening, promised for the end of July, roughly 1,100 people lived in squats in the area where they faced sub-zero temperatures and routine evictions. The container-style facility has a capacity of 1,000 single men, 200 children, and 300 women.  According to Laura Lungarotti, Western Balkans coordinator for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) however, “the site has many disadvantages”, including its distance from urban centres, the border, and public services. The capacity of the camp may also be insufficient. Amnesty researcher Jelena Sesar judges that: “even with the new camp in Lipa, the number of people who are sleeping rough in Una-Sana Canton will exceed the available capacity”. According to ECRE member the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), many people opt to remain in squats because of the mandatory seven-day quarantine imposed on new arrivals. Though people will be free to leave the Lipa camp, activists fear the authorities will evict makeshift camps and force people into the centre. A mass eviction of the biggest autonomous squat near the border, in Velika Kladuša, was carried out on 24 November.

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Photo: (CC) Bastian Walthierer, March 2016

This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.