The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) finds numerous violations of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) by Croatia over the deadly pushback and detention of an Afghan family. Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN) has documented pushbacks affecting almost 1,000 people across the Balkan region in October 2020. Two people dead and many others have sustained injuries after a crowded minibus carrying people on the move overturned in Serbia, where almost 1,000 undocumented people have been detained by authorities.  

In the case M.H. and others v. Croatia concerning an Afghan family of 14, the ECtHR found Croatia to have violated several articles of the ECHR. According to the complainants, the mother and her six children were pushed back by Croatian authorities in November 2017 after crossing the border from Serbia. The group was intercepted by Croatian police officers when resting in a field and despite expressing the wish to seek asylum they were taken back to the border and told to return to Serbia by following a train track in the area. As a train passed, it hit one of the children, a six year-old girl that died following the incident. On 21 March 2018, Croatian authorities apprehended the applicants who had attempted a second crossing. Despite expressing a wish to apply for asylum they were detained in a transit immigration centre in Tovarnik. In its judgment the ECtHR found several violations of the ECHR including ineffective investigation into the child’s death (article 2 procedural), degrading treatment of child applicants detained for a period above two months (article 3 substantive), failure to demonstrate required assessment, vigilance and expedition in proceedings in order to limit family detention as far as possible (article 5 § 1), restriction of contact with the chosen lawyer, pressure placed on the lawyer aimed at discouraging pursuit of case (article 34), and collective expulsion by Croatian police outside official border crossing and without prior notification of Serbian authorities (article 4 para 4). ECRE member organisation Centre for Peace Studies – who intervened in the case – and activist alliance Are You Syrious called for the interior minister and others responsible without the police to be dismissed in light of the ruling. “[T]he verdict cannot restore the lost child’s life, but we hope that it will be a turning point for policy changes” stated the NGOs.

In its October report, BVMN documents 36 testimonies of pushbacks, impacting 986 people on the move across the Balkan region. Among the incidents and evidence reported are pushback operations to Serbia by Romanian authorities using: “insults, beating, and transport in overcrowded vans. Extortion of money and personal belongings seems also very frequent, as well as destruction of cell phones”. Further, the network reports chain pushbacks from Slovenia (via Croatia) to Bosnia and Serbia with several victims apprehended in close proximity to the Italian border. The damning evidence implicates the Croatian police, and in particular the elite “Intervention Police” unit conducting pushback operations at the border with Bosnia. Evictions of makeshift camps in Bosnia and Serbia also feature in the report. In summary BVMN concludes: “border violence which has for so long been a mainstay of domestic and externalised EU policy continued unabated into Autumn, in spite of continual and well-founded evidence exposing perpetrators”.

During a routine check on 9 November, Romanian border police intercepted four Afghan youths between the ages of 14 and 26. The group had attempted to cross the border to Hungary on a lorry heading for Germany and held no official documents. In a separate incident in Serbia, two people died and 19 were injured – four are in serious condition – when a packed minibus hit a post and overturned at high speed close to the border with Bulgaria on 14 November. The Serbian driver of the vehicle was arrested on suspicion of smuggling people. Police operations across Serbia have targeted undocumented people in Belgrade, Subotica, Sombor, Kikinda, Sabac, Kraljevo, Vranje, and Novi Pazar. 991 people were detained and seven alleged traffickers were arrested. Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin stated that “Serbia will not be a parking lot for migrants,” adding that the country would not allow its citizens’ daily lives to be endangered by criminal activities of trafficking organisations.

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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.