Croatia’s Schengen approval neglects violence at its borders

This is a guest post by Tea Vidović, Programme Officer at the Croatian Centre for Peace Studies.

As the European Commission has recently found that Croatia meets the Schengen rules in the field of external border management, the country comes a step closer to access the Schengen area. But national civil society is raising questions about what is actually happening at the country’s borders.

In its report, the Commission ignored several reports from civil society organisations and activists from Croatia (Initiative Welcome, Are You Syrious, Centre for Peace Studies), together with many international organizations (Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Medecins Sans Frontieres) who have been warning about illegal and violent police practices towards individuals trying to enter Croatia from the borders with Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Members and volunteers of Border Violence Monitoring Network present in the border areas in Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina are collecting testimonies from refugees and migrants, and recording these illegal actions to identify trends. These are planned, structural and intentional actions by police officers who are preventing people from entering the territory of the Republic of Croatia and are pushing them back to neighbouring countries without any procedures or access to the international protection system, often using force and violence.

Several independent bodies (like the Croatian Ombudswoman, Council of Europe, special UN rapporteurs) have warned about the situation, but the Croatian Ministry of Interior rejects all the accusations and further affirms that their actions are in line with national and international law and standards. Such statements have been disproven even by internal police sources, as recorded in an anonymous letter sent to the media, which confirms the existence of illegal practices. In the letter, the anonymous border agent wrote: “ a few of us  no longer have the will nor the strength to watch what is being done to those people. The chief of the station and the officials in the Administration Unit give us orders to return everybody, without paperwork, without track, to take their money, to smash their cellphones . the policemen who came from other districts to assist us are particularly cruel, because they are angry for being sent here, and they are here for a short time so they do what they want without any control, they remind me of janissaries, they beat, they steal. This is sad but true, and it all happens with the blessing from the chiefs of the police station and the headquarters.”

As a country that is applying to enter Schengen, it is important that both human rights and border management procedures are respected. As part of the Schengen evaluation – which defines if a candidate country is eligible to enter the Schengen area, the candidate government needs to prove all relevant parts of Schengen aquis are effectively implemented. To the contrary, several reports on the unlawful treatment of police towards migrants and refugees by the police point to a violation of key parts of the Schengen Border Code.

Article 4 of the Schengen Border Code imposes on all parties the full respect of the Charter of Fundamental Rights as well as relevant law, including the Geneva Convention and in particular the principle of non refoulement. Moreover, article 13 of the Code specifies that border surveillance should be subject to procedures and safeguards set by the EU Returns Directive 2008/115/EC. However, the Republic of Croatia is not respecting the Directive on common standards and procedures in Member States for returning illegally staying third-country nationals in several ways, including:

  • Croatia is not providing a fair and efficient asylum system, which fully respects the principle of non-refoulement (Article 5 of the Directive).
  • Third-country nationals, who are detained by the police, are not treated in a humane and dignified manner with respect for their fundamental rights and in compliance with international and national law; in addition, they are detained in inhumane, insecure and unhygienic conditions.
  • the police conduct amounts to torture and ill-treatment and violates Article 3 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

Over the last four years, but especially in 2019, there have been many testimonies of individuals detained in of inhumane and improvised detention facilities on the territory of the Republic of Croatia. One was identified in the city of Korenica, close to the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina (city of Bihać). Despite media reports about it, no actions have been taken from the officials except stating that: “The police station is small. We can leave people outdoors, under the sun and rain, or place them in that space. It is not an ordinary garage, there are ceramic tiles on the walls, there is a toilet in the yard. Would it be better if they were out?”.

Another improvised detention facility was found at approximately 3 km from Zagreb. Refugees and migrants have reported that the centre is in fact a dirty and smelly room that looks like a garage. One of the witnesses said: “When they (the border guards) entered, one of the men asked for a jacket because he was wet and cold from the journey on the truck. In response to the man’s request one of the officers struck him with his police baton, to make him understand that the answer was negative. The same response was given when another person in the group asked to go to the toilet.”

These testimonies show how the use of improvised and illegal detention facilities and the use of violence against detainees is not the result of an accident in one police station, but an intentional and systematic practice. Given the available evidence which demonstrate the widespread and systematic use of push-backs at the Croatian borders and the inhumane treatment of people within the Croatian territory,  Croatia’s Schengen membership should be made conditional on the Croatian government ending such illegal practice. Croatia is still not ready to maintain its borders in compliance with the international standards and the Schengen aquis – and therefore should be prevented from joining the Schengen area until such practices are stopped and sanctioned.