European governments are complicit in “systematic, unlawful, and frequently violent” pushbacks and expulsions of thousands of asylum seekers from Croatia, who are trapped in squalid and unsafe refugee camps in the neighbouring Bosnia, said the latest report by the Amnesty International, published on Wednesday.
Some 5,500 asylum seekers are currently staying in abandoned factories in the Bosnian border towns of Velika Kladusa and Bihac, in inhumane conditions, without access to hot water, medical help, or sufficient food, said the London-based global human rights watchdog.
Prioritising border control at the expense of international law, the European governments are not only ignoring the violence of the Croatian police, but are in fact funding the police, and thus contributing to the growing humanitarian crisis on the edge of the European Union, they added.
Massimo Moratti, Director of Research for Amnesty International’s Europe Office, said EU governments allocate more funds for border security than humanitarian assistance, and that money goes towards equipment for Croatian police, as well as their salaries.
“To understand where the priorities of European governments lie, one only needs to follow the money,” he said.
“Meanwhile, people fleeing war and persecution are beaten and robbed by the Croatian police and forcibly pushed back to legal limbo, left at the mercy of a failing asylum system in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” the report added.
Reports of the violence asylum seekers allegedly suffer at the hands of the Croatian border police surfaced last year, and a number of NGOs, as well as the Council of Europe, have called on Croatia to put an end to police violence against migrants.
Nearly one third of the asylum seekers interviewed by the Amnesty International said they had experienced violence at the hands of the Croatian police, the report said, adding that many described how they were beaten, had their documents destroyed and possessions stolen in what appears to be a systematic and deliberate policy by Croatian authorities designed to deter future attempts to enter the country.
The report also said that the authorities in Croatia discourage public scrutiny of its migration policies, blocking any attempts by the public institutions to monitor migration practices at the border and targeting organisations dealing with migrant and refugee rights.
NGO volunteers have been harassed, held for hours by police without formal charges and threatened with criminal prosecution. The Ministry of Interior has even accused some NGOs of assisting people to enter Croatia irregularly. This has had a chilling effect on those working to support refugees, the report said.
The Interior Ministry issued a response to the report later on Wednesday, saying that Croatia was successfully monitoring and protecting the border in line with international and national laws, and adding that the ministry’s priority was legal and sustainable migration in cooperation with other countries in the region.
“We want to stress that the police respect the migrants’ basic human rights and dignity and provides them access to the international protection system if such protection is needed, in line with national legislation, EU regulations, and documents on human rights,” said the Interior Minister, Davor Bozinovic, in his letter to Moratti.
“Furthermore, this Ministry has a zero-tolerance policy for the unlawful use of force by the Croatian police against anyone… All available information on possible accusations of violence against migrants is carefully looked into by the Ministry,” he added.