EU ‘Covered Up’ Croatian Border Brutality against Migrants
16th June 2020
While COVID-19 figures dip throughout the EU, borders are once more becoming increasingly open. However, this does not apply to the Croatian-Bosnian border, where reports of abuse by police officers against those seeking asylum within the EU have once more come to light. EU officials have also been accused of an “outrageous cover-up” after withholding evidence of a failure by Croatia’s government to supervise this police brutality. This throws a spotlight on both the Croatian government’s human rights record and the apparent willingness of the EU’s executive branch to cover for its failure.
Croatia, an EU member state since 2013, is home to the EU’s longest external border. Its closest neighbour is Bosnia-Herzegovina, a country continuously refused entry to the EU. The so-called Balkan Route is a popular course for both migrants and those seeking protection in the EU, arriving through Croatia via Bosnia. In one week in May alone, 2,700 people entered Croatia with 600 of these being non-EU residents. Footage of police brutality along this border, which has since been nicknamed “the game” by asylum seekers, was first reported in 2018. Each night, as asylum seekers attempt to cross the border, squadrons of patrolling police await them. Several incidents have resulted in shootings, while aid workers, border guards and UN officials have reported “systematic abuse and violence” perpetrated by Croatian police along the border, with migrants and asylum seekers beaten, robbed, and stripped of their clothes and belongings.
“Officials in Brussels had been fearful of a backlash when deciding against disclosing Croatia’s lack of commitment to a monitoring mechanism”
Further to this horror, the Guardian has reported that internal European Commission emails reveal officials in Brussels had been fearful of a backlash when deciding against disclosing Croatia’s lack of commitment to a monitoring mechanism. The establishment of a commitment to ensure the humane treatment of migrants at the border had been a condition of a €6.8m cash injection announced in December 2018 by the EU to strengthen Croatia’s borders with non-EU countries. Croatian ministers claimed last year that the funds had been handed over to the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Croatian Law Centre to establish the supervisory mechanism. Both organisations deny receiving the money.
Images obtained by Border Violence Monitoring Network last month show orange crosses spray-painted on the heads of asylum seekers who have repeatedly attempted to cross the border from Bosnia into Croatia by police. Such ‘branding’ of asylum seekers is degrading behaviour, and particularly uncomfortable in light of cross symbolism targeting predominately Muslim asylum seekers. A father and son who were branded with this cross described border police telling them it was a “cure for coronavirus”. Figures from the Danish Refugee Council, who reopened their operations in Bosnia in 2018, also show the extent of recent violence inflicted on refugees and migrants pushed back to Bosnia from Croatia. In April 2020 alone, 1,641 people were reportedly pushed back. Of these, 445 people reported being denied access to asylum procedures in Croatia upon request, 871 people reported having their identity documents confiscated by border police, 891 people reported violence/physical assault, and 1,253 people reported having their belongings confiscated or set on fire.
“Ignoring Croatia’s abuses of migrants at its borders makes the notion that Schengen membership is contingent on respect for human rights just meaningless talk”
The European Commission ruled in October 2019 that Croatia is ready to join the Schengen travel area. Senior Eastern Europe and Balkans researcher at Human Rights Watch, Lydia Gall, has said that “ignoring Croatia’s abuses of migrants at its borders makes the notion that Schengen membership is contingent on respect for human rights just meaningless talk.”
Yet, Croatian prime minister Andrej Plenković has praised his country’s approach to border control in recent months, claiming that the absence of barbed wires along the border is due to the “friendliness” of neighbour Bosnia-Herzegovina. He told reporters in Zagreb: “what we shall do in preventing illegal migration is to respect our laws, international standards and conventions and all humanitarian aspects. If there are any allegations which might be problematic, everything we have heard is verified, checked and investigated.” There has yet to be a public investigation into the reported abuses along their border.
Featured photo by Free To Use Sounds