Following an exposé of Croatian mistreatment of migrants, police were sent an email that provides “written proof that the pushbacks were ordered by the authorities”. Meanwhile, two officers that were suspended following the October revelations have reportedly been reinstated. Serbia and Romania, both important transit countries for irregular journeys to Europe, face persistent allegations of violence against people on the move and reception failings. The Višegrad Four have deployed more police to the Serbia-Hungary border in response to migration from Afghanistan, but have proclaimed their readiness to accept Ukrainians.

The news site INDEX has published a email from a commanding Croatian officer which they say “can be read as an order to police officers to drive illegal migrants across the border”. The instructions were issued last October following the release of a damning investigation exposing pushbacks and violence on camera. These unlawful practices are referred to euphemistically in the leaked document as “deterrence”, though they take place not only the border, but also deep within the territory. Officers were instructed to “be careful not to be filmed” when carrying out “deterrence”. Sara Kekuš from ECRE member organisation Centre for Peace Studies said the leak added to “countless pieces of evidence” of unlawful police pushbacks from deep in Croatian territory. Following the leak, the Croatian ombudsman has opened an investigation and is urgently requesting the government release the full order. The ombudsman notes that an individualised assessment of protection needs must be carried out before anyone may be expelled from the territory.

Following last year’s media exposé, two Croatian officers were suspended for enacting violence against people on the move. The suspension was applauded as strong evidence of accountability by European Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson. However, as their 3-month suspension is now over, public records state they are working again. The Croatian border police chief insists that an investigation is ongoing, however NGOs denounce this as “empty words”. Centre for Peace Studies note that: “Despite our calls for accountability regarding the systemic practices that violate the Rule of Law in Croatia, there have been no adequate reactions by the Government, by the State Attorney or by the European Commission”. The officer’s suspension and reinstatement has attracted particular attention given one of the officers in November threatened to publish recordings – possibly of pushbacks – that he claimed would compromise the Croatian police.

The October investigation and subsequent email revelations have fuelled allegations of EU complicity in Croatian border violence. The European Commission has paid out 41.1 million euro to Croatia over the past five years, and has granted a further 122 million from the Internal Security Fund to be spend on border control. This spending has given rise to increased policing, new border technology and systematic violence that has made Croatia “the most difficult transit point” on the Balkan Route. Most people making the crossing enter from Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), where journalists report an “atmosphere of fatigue and sometimes open hostility towards migrants”. Pushbacks at the border involve a range of violent and humiliating tactics, including dog bites, beatings, forced undressing, sexual violence and robbery.

An estimated 60,000 people have passed through Serbia in 2021 on their way to seek asylum in the European Union. At the end of January, ECRE member Azii u Srbiji (Asylum Protection Centre) condemned authorities for leaving 500 people, mostly Syrians, in “inhumane” and “deplorable” conditions in the Sombor camp. In the country’s north, police frequently round up and transport people to reception centres: on 6 February, several hundred people were apprehended in this way. Pushbacks and police violence continue at the border with Romania, where more than 3,700 pushbacks were reported between June 2020 and November 2021. KlikActiv reports beatings, threats and humiliation by Romanian officers. “Even though most people on the move pursuing this route come from Syria and Iraq and are clearly in need of international protection, Romanian authorities never allow them access to the national asylum procedure, but instead they illegally return them to the territory of Serbia” says the Serbian NGO.

Across the Balkan Route, the majority of irregular migrants are thought to be Afghans, Pakistanis, Syrians, Iraqis and Iranians. The latest EU asylum statistics, for November 2021, show that applications for protection from Afghans were at the second highest level since 2016.  Despite the rapidly unravelling humanitarian situation in Afghanistan, the Višegrad Four continue to portray irregular arrivals as a “threat” and have deployed a further forty Czech police officers to the Serbian-Hungarian border. Meanwhile, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, BiH, and others have announced their willingness to accept Ukrainian refugees in the event of war in the country.

Albanians are making asylum claims in the EU in record numbers. From January to November 2021, the number of asylum applications from Albanians was up 66 per cent on the year prior. Albanians are thus most asylum-seeking nationality in the Balkan region. Exit News notes that although the European Commission has “repeatedly refused to address the question of why [Albanians] are seeking asylum in Europe. Several hundred asylum requests are granted to Albanians every year in Europe and the UK”.

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