Croatia: violence at the border no barrier to Schengen accession
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The European Commissions decision to give the green light to Croatias membership of the Schengen area has been condemned by human rights groups who say that it ignores illegal and violent push-backs of migrants at Croatias borders that violate EU and international law.
A Commission report published on 22 October (pdf) said that after a long process of evaluation and cooperation Croatia now meets the requirements for joining the Schengen area, following approval of national practices in areas such as data protection, police cooperation, visa policy, return (i.e. deportation), judicial cooperation in criminal matters and external border management.
Violence at the border
However, an open letter signed by 11 organisations (link) working with migrants and refugees at the Croatian border and in neighbouring countries argues that there are planned, structural and intentional actions of the police that have the aim of denying people entry to the territory of the Republic of Croatia and pushing them back to neighbouring countries outside of any established procedures or access to international protection system, often using force and violence.
A database maintained by Border Violence Monitoring Network (link), one of the signatories of the letter, contains hundreds of individual case studies alleging mistreatment within Croatia and at the countrys borders.
In March this year, Amnesty International (AI) published a report (link to pdf) containing the testimonies of a number of men in Bosnia and Herzegovina who had been pushed back from the Croatian border and who recounted beatings, robbery and humiliation.
Staff from Medecins sans Frontieres told AI that their staff in a camp in Miral treated close to 80 patients with severe physical trauma, including broken limbs and ribs, serious cuts and bruises, that they reportedly suffered at the hands of the Croatian police.
In July, a Swiss court suspended the return of a Syrian asylum applicant to Croatia (link) until the authorities in Switzerland assessed the submissions made by the individual in question. These include allegations that "he had been returned from the border 18 times and was imprisoned and abused by the Croatian border police," with ongoing negative effects for his physical and mental health.
Protecting human rights: an ongoing challenge
The Commission's report states that Croatias respect for the human rights of migrants and refugees remains a challenge, but goes on to say that measures taken by the country mean it "continues to fulfil its commitment in relation to the protection of human rights."
Statewatch asked the Commission how it was possible to reach this conclusion when the protection of human rights "remains a challenge". In a written response, the Commission simply repeated the content of its report.
Croatia has significantly strengthened its border control measures over the last year. In September 2018, the EU provided 6.8 million in emergency assistance to "help strengthen border surveillance and law enforcement capacity by covering the operational costs of 10 border police stations through the provision of the daily allowances, over-time compensation and equipment."
At the same time as the Commission sought to boost Croatia's border control capacity, 300,000 of the emergency funding went towards a project aimed at the establishment of a monitoring mechanism that ran for six months this year.
The Commission told Statewatch that the project included "the independent monitoring of activities carried out by the Croatian border police, including through the review of procedures, operational arrangements and manuals, training and support of relevant staff and assistance with complaints and incidents reported."
The project finished at the end of October and the Croatian authorities now have to submit a final report to the Commission for evaluation. The results are supposed to be discussed between the Commission, the Croatian ombudsman and civil society organisations (link)
The letter published by Border Violence Monitoring Network maintains that Croatia has "no monitoring mechanisms of police conduct in place," and that there is "a total lack of official supervision of officer behavior and the National Preventive Mechanism has been essentially disabled."
A representative of the group told Statewatch that the Croatian interior ministry has "consistently denied all allegations made against them, obfuscated evidence in the face of investigations by the Ombudsperson, and painted the weight of circumstantial evidence proving pushbacks as a fabrication by volunteer groups.
Reports gathered by BVMN (link) make clear that violent pushbacks have continued at Croatia's borders whilst the monitoring mechanism project has been ongoing.
Human rights groups are not the only ones who have expressed concern about Croatia's compliance with the requirements for joining the Schengen area.
The Slovenian Prime Minister, Andrej Plenkovic, said in September (link) that Croatia did not meet the Schengen criteria and that he was concerned the Commission might adopt a "political decision", with outgoing Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker hoping to add a new Schengen member state before the end of his term.
Catherine Woolard, the Secretary-General of the European Council on Exiles and Refugees, noted recently (link) that: "Rumours abound that Juncker has promised Croatian Prime Minister Plenkovic, an ally, that he will get it done before hes done."
The Commission's approval of Croatia's management of its external borders before it has even been able to evaluate the human rights monitoring mechanism it has funded will do little to diminish those rumours.
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