The European complicity in Croatian border violence against migrants and asylum seekers
18 December, 2020
The major importance of the Balkan route in terms of migration towards Europe is internationally known. Nevertheless, the international regulations on the subject of asylum are heavily disregarded in this area by the local authorities. In the last years, the number of episodes of violence and abuses against migrants and refugees have been significantly growing. Numerous organizations and associations have reported the violations of the Croatian police forces. Specifically, Amnesty International denounced and made public the episodes in Croatia and the silence of the EU institutions, which ultimately led to an official investigation by the European Ombudsman’s Office.
The role of the European Union
As a consequence of episodes of violence, the European Ombudsman’s Office announced, on the 10th of November 2020 that it will open an inquiry into the possible failure of the European Commission to ensure and guarantee the respect of fundamental rights of migrants and refugees by the Croatian authorities in charge of guarding the borders under the guidance of Frontex. Already in 2013 the Ombudsman found that Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, had “no mechanism in place by which it could deal with individual incidents of breaches of fundamental rights alleged to have occurred in the course of its work”. In particular, the Ombudsman stressed the lack of an internal complaints’ mechanism, which made it impossible for people who suffered from violations to their rights to lodge a complaint and for it to be handled directly by the agency. Although this mechanism has been put in place “with a view to providing safeguards for fundamental rights in the context of Frontex’s expanding mandate”, it has not been successful as proven by these recent events. Besides, the Croatian Ministry of Interior has dismissed the allegations, refusing to carry out independent investigations on the reported abuses.
The European Union plays a significant role in this scenario. The Commission has indeed funded the border countries in the last years in order to support them with the management of immigratory flows towards the EU. The Commission has awarded Croatia with €23,2 million, added to the €108 million that the country receives under the EU’s Asylum Migration and International Fund (AMIF) “to help reinforce border management at the EU’s external borders, in full respect of EU rules”. In particular, these resources are allocated with the aim of strengthening border surveillance and law enforcement capacity and to cover the operational costs of the border police stations. When the Commission has decided to support the border countries, it has not imposed a system to verify the implementation of the operations. Therefore, it is accused of having failed to establish an Independent Monitoring Mechanism to make sure that the border measures in Croatia, mostly funded through EU emergency assistance, complied with fundamental human rights.
What actually happens at the Croatian border?
In the last years, reports of NGOs and associations, including the Danish Refugee Council and Amnesty International, have denounced violent episodes at the Croatian border. The Croatian police has routinely assaulted male and female migrants, even of young age, willing to enter the country. The police officers have destroyed their belongings, stripped them of their clothes and shoes and even forced them to walk for many hours through snow and freezing cold rivers. As Amnesty International has reported in June 2020, a group of migrants and asylum seekers was “bound, brutally beaten and tortured by officers who mocked their injuries and smeared food on their bleeding heads to humiliate them”. Victims claimed that police officers were beating them with the back of a gun, kicking them, and hitting their arms with metal sticks. Besides physical violence, police officers also cause significant psychological abuses to migrants. A strong testimony comes from a Pakistani asylum seeker: “We were pleading with them to stop and show mercy. We were already tied, unable to move and humiliated; there was no reason to keep hitting us and torturing us”.
Only a few migrants managed to move to Miral, a reception centre in Bosnia Herzegovina, when being dropped off by the border after having received abuses. The Danish Refugee Council has recorded 7,000 cases of forcible deportations and unlawful returns to Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2019, most of which were accompanied by reported violence and intimidation by the Croatian police. The Covid-19 emergency has slightly improved the situation, due to the lockdown regulations, but, only in April, the Danish Refugee Council reported 1,600 cases of pushbacks. With regard to these pushbacks, these words pronounced by a Croatian police officer are quite significant: “We do not care where you are from or if you will return to Bosnia or to your country, but you will not go to Croatia. Now you have all your arms and legs because we were careful how we hit you. Next time it will be worse”.
Such reprehensible behaviour by police personnel is unfortunately well known and also widespread in other border areas (e.g. Romania, Greece, France or Hungary). The fact that such events are so frequent and so widespread throughout the European Union must undoubtedly make us reflect on how to manage entry and migratory flows into the EU. More controls on the police personnel who manage these migratory movements will be necessary, but it will also be essential to ensure that the management of these movements is more structural, so that thousands of people can enter the EU in a more regulated way without falling victim to these acts of violence.
Migrants and asylum seekers suffer every day from the brutal abuses of the Croatian police officers. The European Commission has been financing these operations with a significant amount of money, without verifying how these resources were used. This inquiry of the European Ombudsman could really change the situation at the Croatian border. As the director of Amnesty International’s European Institutions Office Eve Geddie said: “We hope that the Ombudsman’s investigation will prompt the Commission to take action to ensure that EU assistance for border operations does not enable further violence and ill-treatment against men, women and children at Europe’s borders”.
This hope must unite all European citizens and institutions, so that the EU does not have on its conscience the continuous and prolonged funding of police corps that carry out illegal actions in the name of the protection of its territory. In Croatia, as in other strategic areas like Libya, unconditional funding from the EU and its Member States must cease: the EU and the EU countries must not be complicit in refoulement and violence episodes, but encourage actions to welcome and support asylum seekers and migrants who are in precarious conditions. A financing system should be rethought, forcing states to act only and exclusively in the interest of migrants and the protection of their rights, even though it would be very difficult to reach given the internal resistances of Member States to solidarity and shared responsibilities. Only with more conscious and thoughtful funding can the rights of migrants and asylum seekers be guaranteed, and terrible episodes of physical and psychological violence avoided.