Global Human Rights Defence

Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina: International Migrants Suffer Serious Violations from Croatian Police Officers
Source: Metal handcuffs on flag of Croatia. Jernej Furman/Flickr 2021.

Author: Laura Libertini

Department: Europe Team

For many years now, the strategic position of Croatia has made the country the perfect transit corridor for international migrants and asylum seekers as part of the well-known Balkan route. Due to the heavy traffic of international migrations flowing within the country’s borders, Croatian authorities have been investing in more resources (e.g., thermos-vision devices) and intensifying the trained personnel to secure its territory from smuggling and illegal border crossing. However, serious allegations have been made in recent years concerning how Croatian border police forces work and treat international migrants.

Several reports produced by international non-governmental and civil society organisations, such as Amnesty International, as well as regional and international bodies like the Council of Europe and the United Nations, have raised significant concerns about the use of violent, inhuman, and degrading practices on migrants by Croatian police officers working at the national borders. In most cases, humiliating treatments and severe pushbacks toward Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) were enforced on international migrants, further deprived of the possibility to apply for asylum. However, as stated by the Council of Europe for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment of Punish (CPT) in the 2020 report in the aftermath of the ad-hoc visit to Croatia, national authorities have denied all allegations, hindering the publication of the report, which was made public only in December 2021.

Under these circumstances, a specific Committee of the CPT made a brief supervisory visit in Croatia between 10 and 14 August 2020 to personally examine the treatment and protection provided to those stripped of their fundamental freedoms by Croatian border authorities, specifically along the Bosnia and Herzegovina frontier area, where major refoulements and “diversion operations” took place. At the time of the visit, between 7,000 and 8,000 migrants were concentrated in several Temporary Accommodation Centres in BiH, a few miles from Croatia, a very strategic position to access the European Union territory. To assess and verify the allegations of ill-treatment, interviews with migrants and asylum seekers were carried out by the CPT delegation. As a result, numerous credible and verifiable accusations of physical mistreatments of foreign nationals by Croatian officers emerged, including slapping, kicking, blows from truncheons and other hard objects, resulting in severe injuries in various parts of the body’s victims.

Throughout the same year, the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) reported severe pushbacks of international refugees at the Croatian-Bosnian border. The DRC report on the matter conveyed multiple testimonies where the persons being interviewed showed serious lesions deriving from beatings and abuses from the Croatian border police. Moreover, most of the interviewees reported suffering physical ill-treatment from men characterised by black uniforms and with their faces covered by balaclavas, associated with Croatian police officers as they were always present during these frontier operations. The interviewees reported suffering from brutal beatings, humiliating and degrading treatment. Amongst the many testimonies, several people from Bangladesh reported an incident that took place on 16 October 2020, where “[…] We were forced to keep our hands in front of our heads with the palms on the ground. One man in black was standing on our hands, preventing any movement. Our legs were also restrained and spread. Then the beating started. We were hit with fists, kicked, and beaten with a branch and something like a ‘whip’. Each one of us suffered brutal beating for at least 15 minutes.” [[1]This is only one of the many testimonies reported by the DRC, which unveiled countless atrocities and endless moments of fear endured by men, families, and minors. People interviewed by the CPT delegation also reported other forms of ill-treatments different from physical abuses. These included officers shooting bullets close to the migrant bodies while they were blocked on the ground, being thrown in the Korana River at the border between Croatia and BiH with their hands tied, being forced to march across the forest, sometimes without shoes and clothes, or even completely undressed.

In light of what has been reported, it is important to point out the relevant legal instruments, starting with Regulation No 2016/399 of the European Parliament and of the Council on a Union Code on the rules governing the movement of persons across borders, i.e., the Schengen Borders Code. Article 13 of the Schengen Code regulates border surveillance, representing the legal basis for Croatian police officers to operate diversion activities. However, the CPT committee underlines that the legal instruments – including the Schengen Border Code – which represents the normative basis supporting the activities carried out by Croatian authorities, “do not diminish, in any way, the State’s non-derogable obligations under Article 3 of the ECHR.” [[2]] Even though Article 3 (Prohibition of Torture) of the European Convention on Human Rights does not specifically mention the international law principle of non-refoulement, – leaving to signatories states the right to control the entry, residence, and expulsion of aliens – the removal of foreign nationals to countries where they could face the risk of torture or persecution, could imply an indirect violation of conventional rights.

Furthermore, according to the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, “No Contracting State shall expel or return (‘refouler’) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” By the principle of non-refoulement under Article 33 of the Geneva Convention, international refugees are protected against all forms of persecution. In addition, Article 3 of the United Nations Convention against Torture “No State Party shall expel, return (“refouler”) or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.”

The situations described so far, reported by numerous civil society organisations, international newspapers, and regional bodies, revealed considerable violations of fundamental human rights, where international migrants were forced to suffer ruthless forms of mistreatment, inhuman and degrading practices, psychological abuses, unjustified pushbacks, and the refusal of their right to apply for asylum. The CPT delegation also reported evidence of migrants being held in detention centres and deprived of the notification of their rights as detainees, of the right to have an interpreter, and of the right to medical assistance, which was ultimately left to the discretion of police officers. Moreover, transportation towards police stations or detention centres was carried out in extremely inadequate and unhealthy conditions. The van through which the migrants were being transported was highly unsafe, without seat belts or hand grips. The persons were forced in the van in groups of 18 to 20, often with their hands tied behind their backs, unable to control their movements, suffering from motion sickness, and vomiting on the ground, themselves, or other passengers.

Lastly, what has been repeatedly stressed by the CPT Committee is that these inhuman treatments to migrants and asylum seekers, completely lack any form of control or monitoring. It is important for each State to have a functioning mechanism of supervision and liability, able to hold accountable every officer operating outside its authority. The findings that the Committee made in the context of the ad-hoc visit, revealed that no accountability mechanisms are in force to monitor the behaviour of the police officers involved in frontier operations, diversion, and apprehension of migrants. The Committee does not only strongly suggest the enforcement of such a mechanism but also recommends a detailed record of every interception and diversion of international migrants. These should be video recorded to make future investigations of mistreatment allegations by border police officers easier to track.

The vast majority of international migrants and refugees escape from strong social instability, political unrest, dire poverty, and extreme weather events. Yet, they find themselves in situations of physical and psychological abuse and uncertainty, seeing other parts of their fundamental rights taken away. Therefore, the CPT Committee, as well as many other international and regional bodies and actors stress the need for a comprehensive European intervention on this matter, where transparency and justice are guaranteed by the Croatian government, where trustful relations are flanked by successful dialogue, and where the primary goal of guaranteeing refugees and international migrant’s basic human rights, as well as their dignity and freedom is respected. 

On 4 February 2022, CPT President Alan Mitchell and Croatian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior Davor Božinović officially met in Strasbourg to deepen their dialogue on the allegations of mistreatment of international migrants. During the meeting, the President reiterated what was already stated in the CPT report, i.e., Croatian authorities should ensure that no international migrant shall be subject to ill-treatment contrary to Article 3 of the ECHR and that efficient monitoring mechanisms shall supervise the activities of Croatian border officers. As a response, the Croatian Deputy Prime Minister approved the publication of the reply by the Croatian authorities to the recommendations of the CPT’s 2020 report. In the Croatian response, 60 points summarise the recommendations made in the CPT’s report, each followed by a notification on how Croatian authorities have managed to fulfil the Committee’s recommendations properly. In conclusion, it was confirmed that the ad-hoc visits to Croatia throughout 2022 will be enhanced and carried out most frequently to monitor the situation at the country’s borders and guarantee that no violations or abuses are committed against international migrants.

Sources and further reading:

Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 1951.

Council of Europe anti-torture Committee announces periodic visits to eight countries in 2022. (2021, 29 July). Council of Europe. Retrieved March 22, 2022, from https://www.coe.int/en/web/cpt/-/council-of-europe-anti-torture-committee-announces-periodic-visits-to-eight-countries-in-2022

Council of Europe anti-torture Committee (CPT) President holds high-level talks with Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior of Croatia on migration issues. (2022, 4 February). Council of Europe. Retrieved March 22, 2022, from https://www.coe.int/en/web/cpt/-/council-of-europe-anti-torture-committee-cpt-president-holds-high-level-talks-with-deputy-prime-minister-and-minister-of-the-interior-of-croatia-on-1

Council of Europe anti-torture Committee publishes report on its 2020 ad hoc visit to Croatia. (2021, 3 December). Council of Europe. Retrieved March 22, 2022, from https://www.coe.int/en/web/cpt/-/council-of-europe-anti-torture-committee-publishes-report-on-its-2020-ad-hoc-visit-to-croatia

Council of Europe. (2021). Report to the Croatian Government on the visit to Croatia carried out by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT). CPT/Inf (2021) 29. https://rm.coe.int/1680a4c199

Danish Refugee Council. (2020). Bosnia and Herzegovina: Border Monitoring Monthly Snapshot. Danish Refugee Council. https://drc.ngo/media/kbyjrc2v/border_monitoring_monthly_snapshot_october2020_final.pdf 

Tondo, L. (2020, October 21). Croatian police accused of “sickening” assaults on migrants on Balkans trail. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/oct/21/croatian-police-accused-of-sickening-assaults-on-migrants-on-balkans-trail-bosnia

Regulation No 2016/399 of the European Parliament and of the Council on a Union Code on the rules governing the movement of persons across borders (Schengen Borders Code)

United Nations Convention against Torture, 1984

[1][] Danish Refugee Council. (2020). Bosnia and Herzegovina: Border Monitoring Monthly Snapshot. Danish Refugee Council. https://drc.ngo/media/kbyjrc2v/border_monitoring_monthly_snapshot_october2020_final.pdf  

[2][] Council of Europe. (2021). Report to the Croatian Government on the visit to Croatia carried out by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT). CPT/Inf (2021) 29. https://rm.coe.int/1680a4c199

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