As controls, fencing and violence increase across the Balkan region – where thousands of pushbacks were recorded between July and November – more people on the move are travelling through Albania and Kosovo. Amid mounting evidence of human rights violations and confusion over the first report of the Independent Border Monitoring Mechanism, the European Council has approved Croatia’s accession to Schengen.

In their latest report under the Protecting Rights At Borders (PRAB) initiative, ECRE member the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) and six civil society organisations have published a report uncovering the pushbacks of more than 6,000 people between July and November 2021. The vast majority of the cases took place in the Balkan region, with almost five thousand in Croatia alone. According to the report: “Overall, Afghan nationals are the largest population reporting pushbacks. 10 percent of all pushback incidents involve children”. The report notes: “Testimonies document unlawful, yet seemingly tolerated and ongoing, pushbacks involving physical abuse, harassment, extortion, destruction of property, theft and denial of access to seeking asylum. But it is not only theft of people’s belongings, it’s also a loss of EU’s basic value of human dignity and respect for people’s fundamental rights”. According to the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, Frontex, 48,500 people crossed borders irregularly in the Balkan region during the first 10 months of 2021. In October, 9,000 people entered the EU irregularly through the Balkans. Reportedly, the routes by which people are seeking entry to Europe are changing, due to stepping up controls  at the Greek-North Macedonian border and a barbed wire fence established on the border of North Macedonia and Serbia. Less than 2,000 people travelled irregularly through Albania in 2013: by 2021 that number was almost 12,000. According to Albanian police, the country has seen a rise of people crossing to Kosovo hoping to reach Serbia and from there the EU. Kosovo’s border police returned 1,530 people in the first 10 months of 2021. In a region otherwise notorious for violent pushbacks and severe human rights violations by authorities, the routes through Albania and Kosovo may be less dangerous for people on the move. “In Albania police is good and we have been told in Kosovo as well they treat us well,” states a 23 year-old Syrian man, explaining: “this is the reason why we go through Kosovo”. 41 people on the move including five children were apprehended by police during a routine check on a road in North Macedonia on 10 December. The group were taken to a shelter near the border with Greece and will be returned to Greece if it is confirmed that they arrived from there.

On 9 December the European Council concluded that Croatia “fulfilled the necessary conditions for the full application of the Schengen acquis” leaving the country one step closer to joining Schengen border-free area. The full acceptance requires explicit consent from all Schengen member states and the opinion of the European Parliament, although the Council is not bound by this opinion. Croatia’s ability to ensure external border control is a precondition for full Schengen entry and Council approval. According to Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković, preparations are ongoing with an emphasis on border security and migration issues. Meanwhile, evidence of violent pushbacks and severe human rights violations by Croatian authorities continues to mount. Between July and November 2021: “By far, the highest rates of pushbacks reported to PRAB partners have still been recorded at the border between Croatia and BiH, with a total of 4.905 persons affected”. The first half-year report of Croatia’s Independent Border Monitoring Mechanism was replaced shortly after it was published last week with an edited and watered down version. While the original version confirmed that Croatian “police carry out illegal deterrence (pushbacks) and do not record deterrence allowed under Article 13 of the Schengen Borders Code,” the edited version rephrased this, stating: “police carry out permissible deterrence under Article 13 of the Schengen Borders Code, although they do not record them, and in mine suspected areas, in isolated cases, they also allow illicit deterrence”. ECRE member Centre for Peace Studies (CMS) urges the government to provide an explanation. Due to “substantiated evidence of violence at Croatia’s borders” ECRE has long advised against the country’s acceptance to Schengen, reiterating the obligation of compliance with Article 4 of the Schengen Borders Code stipulating responsibilities under the “Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU, relevant international law and the Geneva Convention when applying Schengen rules related to crossings of the external borders”. The PRAB report notes that the “fanfare” over the EU funded mechanism sold as an example for other member states, did: “not last for long, as a series of media reports documenting pushbacks and cruel and degrading treatment at the Croatian and Greek borders – since the mechanism became operational – were published in October 2021”. On 14 December the European Council reaffirmed earlier promises of future Schengen membership to another six Balkan states including Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania and North Macedonia.

A court in the Croatian capital of Zagreb has convicted a volunteer from the NGO Are You Syrious (AYS) for “aiding illegal migration”. The alleged crimes by the volunteer relates to the case of a family that were illegally pushed back by Croatian authorities including a little girl who lost her life during the incident. AYS calls the judgment absurd, noting that the court acknowledges that the family were already in Croatia when asking the organisation for assistance and that the particular volunteer never had contact with the family. AYS therefore sees the case as a confirmation of the Croatian judiciary’s lack of independence and reiterates an ECtHR ruling that the investigation of the child’s death was ineffective. On 11 December local media reported that Slovenian army divers had recovered the body of a 10-year old Turkish girl of Kurdish descent in the river Dragonja on the border with Croatia. The child was reportedly carried downstream due to high water levels and strong current when she tried to cross the Slovenian border along with her mother and three siblings. The rest of the family are being treated for shock and hypothermia.

Meanwhile in Bulgaria, vigilante and paramilitary groups have sprung up in recent years as the country has seen people transit to reach the EU. Rights groups accuse authorities of encouraging and enabling these vigilante actors. Former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov stated in 2016: “any help for the police, for the border police, and for the state is welcome. I thanked [the vigilantes]…[and] sent the director of the border police to meet with them so that they could coordinate their information”. One such self-declared “migrant hunter”, Dinko Valev, is notorious for threatening videos shared on social media featuring insults and abuse of people on the move. In one, a group of Syrians were forced at gunpoint to lay face down on the ground then accused of wanting to kill Bulgarians “like dogs”. While Valev has been arrested several times over beatings, he has never been charged.

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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.