Massimo Moratti (photo Amnesty International)

Massimo Moratti (photo Amnesty International)

What is the attitude of Croatia and the European Union towards migrants and refugees trapped at the external borders of the EU? Massimo Moratti, deputy director of Amnesty International’s office for Europe, explains in detail

11/06/2021 -  Toni Gabrić

(Originally published by H-Alter , 1st of June 2021)

Exactly one year ago, at the end of May 2020, people dressed in Croatian special police uniforms intercepted a group of Afghan and Pakistani refugees on the Croatian-Bosnian border, captured them, brutally tortured and humiliated them and then, with severe and permanent bodily injuries, drove them back to Bosnia. Croatian authorities have never investigated the incident, dismissing all allegations. An appropriate reaction did not follow from the European Commission, which is co-responsible because it finances the border activities of our police with significant funds.

Although it is neither the first nor the last example of extremely cruel and xenophobic behavior of our authorities towards people fleeing insecurity and poverty in their own homeland, this case resonated strongly abroad and became recognizable as a paradigm of Croatian human rights violations by refugees.

In June last year, Amnesty International released a special report on the event, with shocking photos and testimonies of beaten people. On its anniversary, we are talking to Massimo Moratti, Amnesty International's Deputy Director for Research in Europe, about the attitude of Croatia, as well as the European Union, towards refugees at the borders of the Union.

Mr. Moratti has been working in the field of the international protection of human rights since 1996, mostly in post conflict countries, for both international organisations (OSCE, OHR, UNDP and others), international NGOs as well as a free lance. He spent 12 years in Bosnia and Herzegovina (arrived in 1997), 7 years in Serbia / Kosovo (2011/2018) and shorter periods in Jordan (2 years), Georgia, Rwanda, Colombia.

In October 2018 he left Belgrade and moved to London where he joined Amnesty International as Deputy Director for Europe Regional Office.

He has a MA in International Science and Diplomacy and a LLM in International Human Rights Law.

Less than a year ago, Amnesty International published a special report on the violence of the Croatian police (more precisely: uniformed and masked persons on the Croatian side of the border with Bosnia) against a group of 16 refugees of Pakistani and Afghan nationality. However, violence against refugees in the area has not abated. Do you have any information about what happened there in the last twelve months? 

Unfortunately, the situation on the borders has not changed. There were close to 16,500 cases of pushbacks, or to be more precise, collective expulsions, from Croatia recorded in 2020 and around 1,400 in the first four months of this year.  

While the numbers of people trying to travel through Croatia somewhat dropped during the coldest winter months, these numbers are increasing again and so are the pushbacks. Throughout the year, however, despite the lower pressure on the border, we have seen very high rates of abusive behaviour by Croatian police and border police. Over a half of the people who are expelled from Croatia report theft, extortion and destruction of their belongings, while every third person reports physical abuse and abusive or degrading treatment. 

Overall, the collective expulsions have become increasingly more violent over the past year. In October, for example, Danish Refugee Council (DRC) treated almost 70 people in only one week, many of whom suffered visible injuries, including fractures and serious bruises, after being hit with metal rods and batons. One of the young men reported in detail how he was sexually abused by the armed men in uniforms. The local doctors in Bihać and Velika Kladuša who provided medical assistance to the men confirmed exceptionally serious injuries as well as sexual violence.

Most recently in February, there were several particularly disturbing cases involving sexual violence against women who were caught while travelling through Croatia with their families. The brutal nature of these assaults and the efforts to humiliate and intimidate the victims point to a practice that amounts to torture and degrading treatment. This is very serious. 

There is no doubt that the practice of unlawfully returning people back to Bosnia and Herzegovina or Serbia and the violence associated with it remains widespread and systemic and are used by Croatian authorities as a tool of border management and a deterrent for potential asylum seekers. This is contrary to the EU, but also Croatian law, which clearly require that all those who request asylum have access to a fair and effective asylum procedure and are treated with dignity in the process. 

How do you comment on the reaction of the Croatian police authorities to the allegations of violence? Minister of the Interior Mr. Božinović reiterates that internal controls have established that all accusations are false ... 

Ministry of Interior’s response to these reports remains consistent and predictable. Minister Božinović has continued to reject any allegations of wrongdoing and frequently resorted to the same tactic of trying to destroy the credibility of the victims as well as the organisations and media who report about these cases without addressing the actual allegations. The Ministry argues that the reported cases lack sufficient evidence, including the identity of the victims and perpetrators and other details, which makes proper investigation difficult.  

But this is frequently not the case. We’ve had more and more people who were willing to be identified, were able to identify perpetrators and subsequently agreed to pursue legal cases against the Ministry of Interior. Our colleagues from the Center for Peace Studies have filed several complaints with the State Attorney’s Office, including one on the incident that Amnesty International documented last June, however to our knowledge, none of these have resulted in an actual investigation.  

We also have little confidence in the independence or the effectiveness of the Ministry of Interior’s Internal Control Service. As Ministry itself has reported, including in correspondence with us, the vast majority (indeed, all in 2019, for example) of complaints reviewed by the Internal Control Service is found groundless and dismissed. Most recently, the Ministry suggested that its internal investigation found 75 cases as founded, but it is not clear what, if any, disciplinary or criminal action was taken against any police officer as a result of these investigations.  

Following their visit to Croatia in 2018, Council of Europe’s Committee for Prevention of Torture (CPT) expressed concern about the quality of investigations conducted by the Internal Control Service and urged the authorities to establish the Commission for processing of complaints, a civilian body that would improve independent oversight. However, this Commission has not been established, which means that the Ministry is relying exclusively on its own staff to investigate the complaints against their colleagues. In the context of such widespread allegations of violations The establishment of the monitoring mechanism was one of the requirements of the emergency assistance awarded to Croatia in 2018 and was included in that grant precisely because of strong concerns about the allegations of widespread abuses. Yet, as we know, such mechanism was never establishedand their systemic nature, it is not a surprise that internal investigations by the Ministry normally don’t lead anywhere. 

The Ministry’s continued rejection of all allegations and weak and ineffective internal controls point to the lack of commitment to tackle unlawful practices or, at worst, a deliberate attempt to cover them.  

Following their visit to Croatia in 2018, Council of Europe’s Committee for Prevention of Torture (CPT) expressed concern about the quality of investigations conducted by the Internal Control Service and urged the authorities to establish the Commission for processing of complaints, a civilian body that would improve independent oversight. However, this Commission has not been established, which means that the Ministry is relying exclusively on its own staff to investigate the complaints against their colleagues. In the context of such widespread allegations of violations and their systemic nature, it is not a surprise that internal investigations by the Ministry normally don’t lead anywhere.

In a situation where Ministry continues to insist that the testimonies of migrants are not legitimate and question the credibility of organisations and media who report about the violations, having a report by an official Council of Europe body would be extremely important. Yet, the fact that this report has not been published is further evidence that Croatia is not only not willing to tackle unlawful practices, but continues to refuse any public scrutiny.  Indeed this is an issue where the public and citizens of Croatia have the right to know why such report hasn’t been released. 

In the same report you stated that you shared the details of this incident with the Ministry of Interior, but has not received an official response. Did you receive any response from the Croatian authorities in the meantime?

Any time before we go public with our findings, we share the details with the authorities and give them an opportunity to respond. In the response that we received from the Ministry of Interior after the publication of our statement, Minister Božinovic rejected the allegations. He said that the
Ministry did not have a record of this particular group of migrants being processed in the vicinity of Plitvice Lakes and suggested that the injuries that we documented were more likely to be a result of "physical clash” with other migrants than of police violence. He also accused migrants of "spinning lies” about Croatian police in retaliation for being prevented from entering into Croatia and the EU.  

We were not surprised by the content of this response, as the attempts to undermine the credibility of the victims and their testimonies and portray migrants and refugees as troublemakers have been a proven tactic by Croatian authorities to shake off these serious allegations.  

"The European Union can no longer remain silent and willfully ignore the violence and abuses by the Croatian police," you said in last year's report and called on the European Commission to investigate allegations of violence. How satisfied are you with the EU's reaction so far? 

Public reactions from various European Commission officials, including Commissioner for Migration and Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, have been strong. Commissioner Johansson was quick to react following the series of violent incidents in October. The Commissioner sent a strongly-worded letter to Minister Božinovic in which she demanded that Croatian authorities provide detailed information about the number and scope of internal investigations and sought assurances about the independence of these investigations. She strongly condemned human rights abuses and repeated her commitment to tackle violations on EU's external borders.

Unfortunately, Commission's rhetoric did not turn into decisive action. The Commission insists that it does not have a mandate to investigate violations committed by the Member States and that, in this case, it is up to Croatian authorities to investigate the allegations. While this is true to a degree, one cannot forget that the European Commission - as the „guardian of EU treaties", has a responsibility and a duty to ensure that Member States are respecting fundamental rights and freedoms as well as EU laws.  

This is particularly the case in the context of EU funding where the Commission has responsibility to ensure that the financial assistance
provided by EU to Member States is not used to commit human rights violations. The Commission has clearly failed in this duty in Croatia. The EU emergency assistance provided to Croatia in 2018 (and again in 2019 and 2020) paid, among other things, for the salaries of border guards and police officers who have been suspected of unlawful practices and abusive behaviour. Yet, despite the warnings and repeated requests to the Commission to demand answers from Croatian authorities, the Commission has not done much to put pressure on the Ministry of Interior or condition future funding with clear improvement on the borders. On the contrary, the EU rewarded Croatia with additional emergency funding and in 2019 provided a green light for Croatia's accession to the Schengen Border Area.  

It is precisely the lack of adequate response from the EU which prompted Amnesty International to file a complaint to European Ombudsmab's Office against the European Commission. In our complaint, we argued that the Commission failed in its duty to  ensure that Croatia complied with EU law and fundamental rights in border operations that have been funded through EU assistance. The Ombudsman's Office decided to open an inquiry against the Commission in November and these proceedings are ongoing.   

"We expect nothing less than the condemnation of these acts and an independent investigation into reported abuses, as well as the establishment of an effective mechanism to ensure that EU funds are not used to commit torture and unlawful returns," you said in the same report. The prevailing opinion in Croatia is that the Croatian police are actually doing "dirty work” in the interest of the Union and with its approval? 

There is no doubt that the current situation on EU’s external borders, including in Croatia, Greece and Hungary, is to a large degree a direct consequence of EU migration policy which has prioritized border security and focused on preventing entries into the EU.  

The best way to end the illegal practices on the borders is to agree, at the level of EU, to put in place a better and more humane migration management system that would better balance human rights and security and ensure that people fleeing wars, persecution or poverty have legal and safe avenues for obtaining protection in the European countries. The new EU Pact on Migration and Asylum proposed last September was a good opportunity to do so. Unfortunately, the solutions proposed in the Pact and currently being negotiated have yet again prioritised border security over fundamental rights.

Nevertheless, regardless of the current political discussions at the EU level, countries must comply with international and domestic law and Croatia is not absolved of this responsibility. The practices witnessed on Croatian borders are not only illegal but also vastly disproportionate and unnecessary.  

The Croatian government still has not established a mechanism for monitoring the human rights situation at the border, for which purpose it received 300,000 euros in financial support from the EU. How do you comment on such resistance to establishing controls in the area? 

This is perhaps the most telling evidence of Croatia's refusal to allow any independent scrutiny of its practices. The establishment of the monitoring mechanism was one of the requirements of the emergency assistance awarded to Croatia in 2018 and was included in that grant precisely because of strong concerns about the allegations of widespread abuses. Yet, as we know, such mechanism was never established.  

We are aware the Ministry of Interior is currently working with the European Commission on developing a Memorandum of Understanding that would put in place this mechanism. As we understand, however, these discussions are not going very well mostly due to the reluctance of the Croatian authorities to ensure that such mechanism is truly independent and effective. 

Yet, if there is a genuine commitment to tackle violations and ensure full accountability of police officials on the border, a monitoring mechanism would have to involve civil society and independent national authorities, such as Ombudsman's Office, in its activities. This is a prerequisite for independence.  

Also, to be effective, monitoring mechanism would have to have unfettered access to documents and places of detention and a mandate to conduct unannounced visits. Without these elements, any monitoring system would be merely a paper tiger, rather than a means to improve practices, ensure accountability and stop human rights abuses. 

The decision of the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Croatia regarding the accident in which in 2017 a Afghan refugee Madina Hussiny was killed on the Croatian-Serbian border was published ten days ago. The decision concerns the family rights of this six-year-old girl, whose death was the result of an illegal expulsion. Constitutional court established that the police officers ignored the requests of the members of this family for international protection in Croatia and ordered them to return to Serbia in the middle of the night, hungry and exhausted, along the railway. That same night, little Madina died on that line. How would you comment on that event and the final decision of the Constitutional Court?

This is an important decision, especially since it was made by a domestic court. It confirmed that Croatia violated the asylum rights of the family and, by returning them to Serbia, put them in danger and  potentially exposed them to the risk of torture and ill-treatment. The ruling specifically speaks about the failure of the authorities to properly assess whether Serbia was a "safe third country.” As we know, courts is several European countries issued similar rulings over the past two years blocking returns of asylum-seekers to Croatia because of the risk of their asylum requests being ignored and the potential of arbitrary expulsion to third countries, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia, without assessing the risks of such returns.  

Unfortunately, this ruling will not bring back little Madina and might be of little solace to her family. However, the decision is important for the rule of law in Croatia and, we hope, will affirm the rights of people seeking international protection to have their cases properly assessed and also enable them to seek remedies in cases their rights have been violated.  

What is the political (value and ideological) background of such a strong xenophobia? Can "fear of Islamic terrorism" be sufficient, and a justifiable reason, do we know that there is no experiential confirmation for it? In the wave of hundreds of thousands of refugees at or within the EU's borders, there is almost no "terrorism". 

It is difficult to pinpoint to what exactly drives the practices of the Croatian authorities in this context. There is no doubt that xenophobia and the "fear of Islamic terrorism” play a part in such inhumane treatment of desperate people, many of whom are fleeing wars and persecution or poverty.  

However, Croatia is not an exception in Europe. We have witnessed similar attitudes in other European countries, including Hungary, Poland and even France, where a vocal minority – often supported by mainstream media - exaggerates the fears of terrorist threats and drives narratives that foment intolerance. In the context of fear and "threats”, it is easier to explain and justify a heavy-handed approach to migration. In other words, xenophobia might be a useful vehicle to achieve political goals, rather than the actual driver of border violence.  

Instead of engaging in hate speech, public officials and media should strongly condemn these narratives. They might be politically expedient for some political parties at the moment, but in the long-run, they will undermine the very foundation of Croatia society and the democratic values upon which it purports to be built.

Are there elements of "ur-fascism” in such an attitude towards people fleeing the consequences of war and social misery, to use the term Umberto Eco? 

Thanks for the question, it raises some very important issues. As we all know, Amnesty International for the last 60 years has been focused on research and action aimed at preventing and ending the gravest abuses of human rights. Human rights abuses occur regardless of the ideology causing them. Global solidarity, mutual respect, independence and impartiality are some of the core values that shape our action. In the course of these years, as it can be seen from our Annual Reports, European countries on the issue of migration have been putting in place policies that have been causing suffering and human rights violations: this happened not only in Croatia, but also in Greece, Hungary, Italy or other countries placed along the external borders of the European Union. Migrations, either escaping from conflict or from misery, have always existed in the history of mankind. The lack of safe and legal pathways to emigrate, the fact that a number of states see the issue of migration as a threat, rather than a phenonemom to manage are definitely worrying signs in direct contradiction with AI core values.

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