Can you give our readers a brief overview of the pushbacks at the Croatian border?
Pushbacks from the Croatian territory are a systematic and ongoing practice on the Croatian Border since 2016. It has been six years now that severe human rights violations happen at the Croatian border with thousands of testimonies of people who have been tortured, who have been pushed back, and who experienced traumatic treatment from the Croatian police. We have known for years that these illegal pushbacks are ordered from the very top of the of the hierarchy in Croatia, from the ministry of Interior. But there are no effective investigations into these human rights violations: neither into the policemen who commit the pushbacks, nor politicians who let them happen or even command them. This shows that this is not only a human rights violation issue, but it’s also an issue of the justice system in Croatia.
In theory, there is a procedure laid out for asylum seekers arriving on Croatian territory: Asylum seekers shall express their intent to seek asylum at the border crossing point, a police station or at the Reception Center for Foreigners. They may express their intent to seek asylum also if they crossed the border illegally, if they justify it with a good reason. A few weeks after lodging the application for international protection, applicants are invited to an interview after which the Ministry of Interior decides about the application.
Reality is very different for almost everyone trying to cross into Croatia: Asylum seekers arriving on Croatian territory are pushed back before they can even express their intent to seek Asylum. Some have tried it as often as 30 times, and the pushbacks often go hand in hand with violent and humiliating treatment: migrants are beaten up brutally, policemen take away their clothes, shoes and phones (often the only possessions people are left with after their long journey to Europe), insult and torture them. Subsequently, the policemen force them to walk back into Bosnia or Serbia.
The violence asylum seekers experience are not isolated cases of police officers slipping up. It happens much rather systematically and is coordinated by the Croatian government in the so-called “Operation Corridor”. The order for the illegal deportations comes from the Ministry of the Interior in Zagreb, as reported by three independent sources from the Croatian police.
Is it Frontex or Croatian police doing illegal pushbacks?
We don’t have enough material to state Frontex is pushing back people themselves. However, there have been testimonies of refugees describing a special police unit involved in the pushbacks. They usually wear balaclavas, are dressed completely in black and heavily armed. Their uniforms are stripped of any identifying details. This is not only documented in testimonies of migrants, but also recorded by journalists: a lighthouse report caught these policemen on camera while they were pushing back migrants to Bosnia and Hercegovina who intended to seek asylum in Croatia. Also, there are two testimonies of police officers describing the orders they are given: they are supposed to turn off their GPS and cover their insignia when they’re going to pushback people.
The non-profit organization Lighthouse Reports investigated in 2021 for eight months into the organization and finances of pushbacks on the external borders of the EU. The evidence they found is crushing: not only did they record high resolution footage of pushbacks on the Bosnian border on cameras and drones, but they also found evidence that the pushbacks on Croatian territory are financed by EU funds.
The masked men committing the pushbacks own batons and clothes consistent with Croatia’s Intervention police, a unit that usually controls riots in football stadiums or protests. Their video footage is supported by testimony of people who were interviewed right after their pushbacks. Jackets, accommodation, and daily allowance are paid for from the EU Internal Security Funds (ISF).
And how did the Croatian government react to these allegations in the past? Was there any reaction?
Unfortunately, the reaction is always the same: Ministry of Interior always denies this happened. In many, many cases, the Ministry of Interior is giving a statement within just a few hours saying they checked the allegations and that this didn’t happen – but it’s ridiculous to believe this can be checked within couple of hours.
In this last footage of the lighthouse report it was more difficult to deny the charges because the footage was detailed and very long. In turn, they did an internal disciplinary action against three police officers who were recorded beating up pushing back refugees. However, these policemen were sanctioned only for not properly wearing their uniforms, but not for the pushbacks. They were suspended for about three months and then went back to work. These policemen are, however, at the very bottom of the hierarchy. Until the whole chain is held responsible, these cases will end up with similarly weak punishments, if even.
Many asylum seekers don’t want to stay in Croatia, they want to move on further to Western Europe. Why then does Croatia make it so hard for them to enter the country?
It’s not completely true that many of the people don’t want to stay in Croatia. Some want to move on, which is reasonable looking at possibilities of integration, finding work, learning the language and so on. There are lots of different reasons for where people choose to seek asylum.
And why does the Croatian government command these pushbacks? Well, that’s not easy to answer. I think the main issue is that the common European Asylum System needs a reform, because the asylum politics of the EU are based on externalization. This means, EU wants third countries to deal with stopping refugees and migrants before they enter the EU. That’s why the EU has agreements with Turkey and with Libya and many other countries which breach human rights. They do this so they can externalize the migration politics.
That leads to my next question: what is the responsibility of the other EU members, which knowingly let these human right violations other their borders happen?
We need political will for this to change. We can see this will right now with Ukraine, which is absolutely amazing. But this protection should be available to everyone who needs it, regardless of whether they are coming from Ukraine or Sudan, regardless of their skin colour or their religion. What we need is real solidarity between European member states. It is not fair that countries with external EU borders are left alone with the reception of migrants. But the whole EU can deal with this if they work together.
Solidarity means in this case actual shared responsibility, and the willingness to work together in the reception and integration of migrants. The EU needs to stop exposing itself to the will of dictators like Erdoğan or Lukaschenko. This issue needs to be brought into all the institutions of the EU, especially the Council, the Parliament and the Commission.
Can you tell us something about the situation of asylum seekers in other Balkan countries like Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina?
I can share what I hear from my colleagues that work in those countries. Concerning Bosnia, reception conditions are really not good. And it would be very unfair to expect from Bosnia and Herzegovina to be able to host everyone who the EU isn’t willing to take. It’s hypocritical to point at Bosnia and Herzegovina and say: “you’re not providing enough food or shelters for the refugees we refuse to take.”
EU countries go as far as committing chain pushbacks from Austria through Italy, Slovenia, Croatia and then to Bosnia and Herzegovina. After these chain pushbacks, migrants find themselves in Bosnia where they sometimes face more chain pushbacks even to the to their original state. Same goes for Serbia, which is why the Constitutional Court of Croatia assessed last year Serbia is not a safe country for migrants.
One of the most tragic victims of the failing EU migration politics is the case of Madina Hussiny. Madina, a six-year-old girl from Afghanistan, her mum and her siblings crossed the border from Serbia to Croatia in November 2017 on foot. A few miles into Croatian territory, a police officer told them to go back to Serbia, although they expressed their intent to seek asylum. The police ignored the asylum request of a mother and six children and ordered them to follow the railway tracks back to Serbia in the middle of the night. While they were following these tracks, a train came and killed Madina Hussiny.
The European Court of Human Rights has been dealing with Madinas case. In November 2021, they finally found clear violation of five human rights, including that Croatia violated right to life of little Madina because they didn’t carry out effective investigations into her death. Still, the Croatian government tries to cover up the reasons for Madinas death. They turn their back to this refugee family that experienced horrible things in Croatia and go to the end to prove that this did not happen.