Tuesday, 3 August 2021

HRW, AI And Other NGOs Criticise Croatian Border Monitoring Mechanism

ZAGREB, 3 Aug, 2021 - Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and six other NGOs on Tuesday criticised the new Croatian border monitoring mechanism, expressing concern about the body's independence and efficiency.

Recent media reports and official statements about the newly established border monitoring mechanism raise serious concerns, especially over the body's mandate, efficiency and independence, Amnesty International, Are You Syrious, the Centre for Peace Studies, the Danish Refugee Council, Human Rights Watch, the International Rescue Committee, Refugee Rights Europe and Save the Children said in a joint press release.

The Croatian government announced that the negotiations on the mechanism have concluded, but has not publicly disclosed further details about its structure or functioning, according to the press release.

The independent mechanism should monitor the treatment of illegal migrants by police officers, following several reports by NGOs of violations of migrants' rights at the border, which the Croatian government denies. The establishment of the mechanism was earlier proposed by the European Commission.

"Any border monitoring mechanism should be independent in law and practice and have sufficient resources and a robust mandate to monitor border-related operations anywhere on the territory of a state," the NGOs said.

The source of contention is the fact that according to the NGOs, the mechanism's mandate would be limited to police stations near the border and border crossings, while most contentious actions of the Croatian authorities take place further away from them, the press release says.

The objection also referred to the involvement of other institutions and organisations.

"To ensure that the mechanism is credible and effective, it needs to involve independent institutions or organisations that have monitoring experience – such as civil society organisations, United Nations agencies, and national human rights institutions – that are not financially dependent on the government;" they said, adding that any mechanisms that do not meet such standards could undermine the European Commission's efforts to end violence on the Union's external borders.

"The Commission should actively review and assess the mechanism to ensure that Croatian authorities put in place a system that can credibly monitor compliance with EU law in border operations and should provide political and financial support only to a system that meets the above standards," the NGOs said.

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Saturday, 9 November 2019

Croatia Says HRW Report on Migrants Doesn't Contain Any Concrete Evidence

ZAGREB, November 9, 2019 - Croatia's Interior Ministry on Friday said in a press release that a report released by the Human Rights Watch (HRW) organisation consisted of very general claims about the alleged inhumane treatment of migrants by the local police and that it does not contain any concrete evidence.

"It is important to take into consideration that migrants, who are prevented from entering Croatia by police officers or other procedures have been undertaken for their readmission to the country from which they entered illegally, often falsely accuse police officers of violence, in the hope that these accusations will help them in a new attempt to enter Croatia and continue on their way toward their final destination," the Interior Ministry said.

The ministry underscored that advocates of illegal border crossing and illegal entry in the EU have for some time been reporting alleged unlawful conduct by Croatia's police, accusing the police in general of implementing pushbacks on the external EU border.

"In reality just the opposite is occurring in fact. Bosnia and Herzegovina has admitted several times that it cannot protect its border with Serbia and Montenegro due to a capacity shortage. In that situation of a virtually uncontrolled influx of migrants, Bosnia and Herzegovina's authorities are directing migrants to the Una-Sana Canton. Bosnia and Herzegovina has organised transport to that area and it is worth mentioning the coinciding fact that the railway line between Sarajevo and Bihać has been reopened after 27 years, at a time just when migrants are being directed toward the border with Croatia.

Despite efforts by the international community and Croatia, as a member of the EU which has provided funding for humane accommodation of migrants in Bosnia and Herzegovina, those irregular migrants are being accommodated in the Vučjak camp which is located about six kilometres from Croatia's border, the Croatian ministry says adding that those irregular migrants are banned from entering Bihać and are instructed how to illegally cross a state border.

According to Bosnia and Herzegovina's law that route toward Croatia is an illegal crossing and liable to criminal proceedings, the Croatian ministry said.

The press release further notes that HRW did not present any facts in its report.

"There is rare or hardly any information of the smooth flow of migrants entering Bosnia and Herzegovina from Serbia or Montenegro which is indeed unusual considering that it is in fact the cause of the current situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina and that the situation in Vučjak or Bihać is just a consequence of that and something that Croatia's police can absolutely not be responsible for," MUP said.

It adds that migrants illegally crossing the state border are treated according the Law on Aliens.

MUP said that all accusations by non-governmental organisations and other civil society organisations of alleged violence toward migrants are being checked, however, these reports generally do not have sufficient information required to launch a criminal investigation.

The ministry checks all allegations of unprofessional conduct by the police in detail, which often do not have sufficient information to verify the allegations and if there is any suspicion of a crime being committed that is reported to the State Prosecutor's Office to initiate the relevant procedure in its remit.

The ministry recalls that there have been several cases when Croatia's police have saved migrants from peril at the state border.

"Today even, thanks to the timely reaction by Croatian police a family of five with a woman in an advanced stage of pregnancy with three children has been taken care of in the Korenica area. The pregnant woman was taken to Gospić hospital while her husband and three children were taken to the local police station where they said that they would apply for international protection in Croatia," the press release said.

The European Commission took account of the HRW report when evaluating Croatia's preparedness to join the Schengen area and concluded that Croatia continued to fulfil its commitments towards human rights protection, European Commission spokeswoman Tove Ernst said on Friday.

She recalled that the Commission had made its recommendation in a report three weeks ago, in which it concluded that Croatia continued to fulfil its commitments relating to the protection of human rights. Now it is up to the Council of the EU to decide on Croatia's accession to the Schengen area, she added.

The non-governmental organisation Human Rights Watch said in a report on Friday that the Commission's conclusions from October about the technical readiness of Croatia to join the Schengen area did not hold in the face of evidence of violent pushbacks of migrants from the Croatian border. As proof of its claim, HRW released a video on its website documenting the abuses.

The European Commission said it was in close contact with Croatian authorities and would continue following the situation together with them.

The Commission always takes allegations of mistreatment of migrants very seriously, Ernst said

As for Croatia, the protection of the human rights of migrants and asylum seekers, accusations that they are denied access to the asylum-seeking process and accusations that police use force, that remains a challenge. We are in close contact with Croatian authorities regarding this issue. They have committed to looking into these accusations and we will continue following the situation together with Croatian authorities, she added.

The spokeswoman said that a monitoring mechanism had been put in place at the Commission's request to ensure full compliance with EU law by border authorities.

We supported the efforts by the Croatian authorities to ensure respect for fundamental rights, primarily on the borders, and a portion of the 7 million euro emergency aid package that has been granted to Croatia is intended for strengthening border management and for monitoring. As we specified a few weeks ago, Croatia continues to meet its commitments in this area. We have acted by setting up the monitoring mechanism, for which we have granted funding, and we remain in close contact with the Croatian authorities, Ernst said.

More news about migrant crisis can be found in the Politics section.

Friday, 8 November 2019

HRW: Border Pushbacks Disqualify Croatia for Schengen

ZAGREB, November 8, 2019 - The European Commission’s October conclusion that Croatia is ready to join the Schengen Area "wilfully brushes over evidence of violent pushbacks of migrants at its borders," Human Rights Watch said on Friday.

As proof of that claim, HRW released a video documenting the abuses.

"The European Commission’s action sends the message that serious human rights abuses are no obstacle to Schengen accession. The European Commission should investigate the situation instead of rewarding Croatia," HRW said in a press release.

"Croatia's unlawful and violent summary returns of asylum seekers and migrants should disqualify it from joining the Schengen Area," said Lydia Gall, senior Eastern Europe and Balkans researcher at HRW. “Ignoring Croatia’s abuses of migrants at its borders makes the notion that Schengen membership is contingent on respect for human rights just meaningless talk."

The HRW video features interviews with people shortly after they were summarily returned to Bosnia and Herzegovina by Croatian police in August. It includes interviews with other pushback victims and witnesses of pushbacks, including the mayor of Bihać, a BiH town across the border from Croatia. It also shows credible secretly recorded footage of Croatian police officers escorting groups of migrants across the border to BiH without following due process.

The summary return of asylum seekers without consideration of their protection needs is contrary to European Union asylum law, the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, and the 1951 Refugee Convention, HRW said.

According to the press release, HRW has documented summary collective expulsions from Croatia to Serbia and BiH since 2016.

"In some instances, Croatian border officials have used force, pummelling people with fists, kicking them, and making them run gauntlets between lines of police officers. Violence has been directed against women and children. Unlike with lawful deportations, migrants are not returned at ports of entry, but rather in remote border areas, including, at times, forced to cross freezing streams."

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner, and other nongovernmental organisations have echoed HRW concerns. Although President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović in July acknowledged that authorities engage in pushbacks, Croatian authorities have repeatedly denied the allegations, including to HRW, and in some cases have accused aid groups and victims of fabricating facts to make Croatian police look bad, the press release said.

Croatian authorities have not taken credible steps to halt the practice and to hold those responsible to account, HRW said.

"In a meeting with Human Rights Watch in May, the Interior Ministry state secretary, Terezija Gras, said the Croatian police would investigate any complaints filed by migrants about police mistreatment but could not say how many complaints the authorities had received. Nor could she explain how a migrant pushed back from Croatia to Bosnia and Herzegovina would be able to a file a complaint with the authorities in Croatia."

To join the Schengen area without border and passport controls, member states have to fulfil certain criteria, including respect for the right to seek asylum, HRW said.

"The EU Schengen Borders Code Article 4 says that member states should act in compliance with EU law and 'obligations related to access to international protection, in particular the principle of non-refoulement (banning the return to a country where they would face torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or other irreparable harm)'. ... Pushbacks effectively preventing people from accessing the Croatian asylum procedure violate Article 4."

Before using the European Commission’s report to approve Croatia’s full access to Schengen, the European Council should call for a reassessment of Croatia’s compliance with the EU Schengen Borders Code, HRW said.

The Council should also put in place a monitoring mechanism for Croatia as well as initiate legal enforcement action against Croatia for violating EU laws, HRW added.

"Letting Croatia join Schengen when migrants and asylum seekers continue to be brutally pushed back would be an EU green light for abuses," Gall said. "The European Commission should not just accept Croatia’s empty promises, but ensure that Schengen criteria are truly met, which is clearly not happening now."

More news about migrant crisis can be found in the Politics section.

Monday, 15 July 2019

HRW Calls on Croatia to Stop Pushing Back Migrants to Bosnia

ZAGREB, July 15, 2019 The Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Monday sent an open letter to President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović calling on Croatia to "immediately stop summarily returning migrants and asylum seekers to Bosnia and Herzegovina, in some cases with force."

"Zagreb needs to put an end to unlawful pushbacks and violence against migrants at its borders," Lydia Gall, senior researcher for Balkans and the Eastern European Union (EU) at Human Rights Watch, was quoted as saying.

"Human Rights Watch and other nongovernmental and intergovernmental organizations, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Council of Europe (COE), have regularly reported on and raised concerns about pushbacks and violence by Croatian border officials at Croatia’s border with Bosnia and Herzegovina," the HRW says in its report.

"Croatian authorities had denied the allegations, in some cases with smears of the groups and victims."

"Since July 2018, the European Coast Guard and Border Agency, commonly known as Frontex, has had a presence on the Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina border through a Multipurpose Aerial Surveillance (MAS) system, meaning daily aerial patrols along the border and border area to detect irregularities. One of the priorities of the Frontex operation is to detect human rights violations and summary returns.

"But in late May, Frontex told Human Rights Watch that it had not detected any human rights violations or pushbacks., the NGO says.

The HRW says in its statement that President Grabar-Kitarović's "recent admission during an interview on Swiss television that Croatian officials are engaged in these pushbacks triggers a responsibility by Croatian authorities to investigate and to hold those responsible for any unlawful action to account".

The HRW holds that the Croatian president’s statement calls into question the effectiveness of Frontex’s mission and the extent to which it is capable of fulfilling its mandate to protect human rights while engaged in border control efforts.

"The summary return of asylum seekers without consideration of their protection needs is contrary to EU asylum law, the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, and the 1951 Refugee Convention," the human rights watchdog says.

More news about migrant crisis can be found in the Politics section.

Thursday, 18 January 2018

HRW Criticizes Croatia’s Human Rights Policies

ZAGREB, January 18, 2018 - By August, 1,262 people claimed asylum in Croatia in 2017, including people returned to Croatia from other EU member states under EU asylum rules, only 76 asylum seekers were granted some form of protection in 2017 at the time of writing, and Croatia relocated 78 asylum seekers from Greece and Italy by late September, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).