A scene from the video produced by Lighthouse Reports

A scene from the video produced by Lighthouse Reports

This time the violence of the Croatian police against migrants is well documented and unequivocal, so much so that the police themselves are forced to admit its veracity. However, the Minister of the Interior ignores the matter. The EU expresses concern, but its inaction makes it complicit

14/10/2021 -  Giovanni Vale Zagreb

In 1951, when the right to asylum was written down in the Geneva Convention, the Second World War had been over for just a few years. In every corner of the planet the drama of tens of millions of deaths, of cities razed to the ground, and of people who had had to start from scratch in a place unknown to them was part of everyday life. The horror of the Holocaust and persecutions was addressed by establishing a system of universally recognised rights, which would hopefully prevent (or at least limit) the repetition of a massacre like the one that had just ended.

Among other things, the states undertook to respect the status of "refugee", or to protect those fleeing their country because they were persecuted for reasons of race, religion, or even for their own political opinions. That system, born from the ashes of the Second World War, and of which the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is perhaps the most important institution, has not prevented the many conflicts that have broken out in recent decades, but it has guaranteed access to a safe place for millions of people to start living again after leaving war and oppression behind.

The right of asylum dies at the borders of Croatia

It may seem like a prologue that goes back a long way, but it is necessary to understand the gravity of what happened in Croatia last week. 70 years after the Geneva Convention, a member state of the European Union has admitted that its policemen have beaten and expelled people who had entered the national territory, denying them the right of asylum. "These are three policemen who are members of the intervention forces", police chief Nikola Milina said on Friday, after the investigation consortium Lighthouse Reports published a video  of three armed men hitting a group of migrants with batons.

For the first time, after five years of accusations of illegal pushbacks and violence at external borders, Zagreb admits its responsibility in those actions. This is an unprecedented fact, but it does not mean a change in the political line. In the video published by Lighthouse Reports, the armed men – although covered by a balaclava and wearing uniforms with no distinctive elements – wear the equipment typical of Croatian agents, complete with baton and service pistol. In short, it is impossible to argue that they were people outside the police force.

According to Milina's statements, however, the three agents acted "during their working hours but autonomously". In other words, it would be an isolated case and they did not act in response to orders. A version that raises many doubts: how could the agents have been absent from their shift without being noticed to go to the border to beat the migrants? And why take off your uniforms? For non-governmental organisations dealing with migration and for the authors of the report themselves, the police lie. "We didn't film three bad apples – commented Lighthouse Reports on Twitter – violence on the Croatian-Bosnian border is systematic".

Five years of violence

The recent history of migration in South-Eastern Europe is indeed studded with episodes of violence. And since the “Balkan route” was closed in 2016, countless attacks and illegal pushbacks have been recorded at Croatia's southern borders. There is no NGO or institution that has not intervened on this issue in the last five years. OBCT summarised the main episodes in this article, which chronicles the escalation of violence over the years, including the death of Madina Hussiny in 2017 (a six-year-old girl hit by a train while returning with her family to Serbia after being rejected by the Croatian police) and the torture cases  reported by Amnesty International in 2020.

But that is not all. Since 2018, the Croatian Ombudswoman complains that she no longer has access to the videos recorded by the police whenever their interventions involve migrants. At each request to access the video materials, the Ombudswoman is told that the videos in question have been deleted by mistake or inadvertently not recorded. In 2019, some policemen sent the Ombudswoman an anonymous letter  asking for protection against orders contrary to the law: when it comes to organising pushbacks – the agents said – you are asked to communicate only via Whatsapp and Viber, to turn off the GPS, and not to report.

Is the European Commission "concerned" or complicit?

Complaints, reports, and inquiries have so far produced no political consequences in Croatia or Brussels. Even in front of the Lighthouse Reports video, Interior Minister Davor Bozinovic assured that he will not resign because he does not see how he can be held "personally responsible" for what has been reported by journalists. European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson spoke of "shocking" images and asked Zagreb for an investigation, saying she was "very worried". But a year ago, after the publication of a Danish Refugee Council report on the violence on the Croatian-Bosnian border, Johansson had used the same words , assuring that she would take the NGO's allegations "very seriously". But nothing happened.

According to the Centre for Peace Studies  (CMS) in Zagreb, which over the years has filed three complaints against the police, "the Republic of Croatia, with the support of the European Union, which finances these illegal practices, turns its back to the people who seek safety and exposes them to more violence". The European Commission, rather than concerned, would be an accomplice of Zagreb. In particular, the CMS points to the 6.8 million Euro budget assigned to Croatia in 2018 for the inspection of its borders, which included a smaller amount (300,000 Euros) allocated for the creation of an independent control mechanism on the work of the border police.

"Ironically, it was the Ministry of the Interior that decided how the control would take place and who would implement it", continues the Peace Studies Center in a recent statement. Any inspection at the Bosnian-Croatian border must be announced in advance and so far no violation of the law has been recorded. A result that satisfies the government of Andrej Plenkovic, who hopes to bring Croatia to the Schengen area by the end of next year, but which is a tombstone on a path that began 70 years ago to guarantee protection to those fleeing from wars and persecutions. At the borders of Croatia and therefore of the European Union, the rule of law is suspended and that is fine by Zagreb and Brussels.

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