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28th Jan 2023

Illegal pushbacks happening daily in Croatia, says NGO

  • Previously documented violence of migrant abuse in Croatia - this picture from 2020 is by the Danish Refugee Council (Photo: Danish Refugee Council)
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More than 1,600 testimonies of alleged illegal pushbacks of migrants and refugees, dating from 2017 throughout the EU, was published on Thursday (8 December).

The accounts, collected by the Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN) in a so-called Black Book commissioned by the Left party in the European Parliament, add to the mounting body evidence of abuse along the EU's external borders.

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Milena Zajovic, co-author of the Black Book, said an estimated 25,000 people are being pushed back from Croatia annually.

"That means over 2,000 per month, that is around 70 per day, six people every hour, a family of six every hour pushed out of my Croatia alone," she told reporters.

"Now multiply this with the number of the countries on the route," she said.

One testimony from last month, cited in the Black Book and collected from Cameroon and Congolese nationals, says they were violently pushed back into Bosnia by Croat police.

The group of 25 included a two-year old child. Some were allegedly pepper sprayed before being dropped off in a forest on the Bosnian side of the border.

The testimony, along with others, casts a long shadow over Terezija Gras, a senior official in the Croatian interior ministry.

Gras wants to become the next executive-director at the EU's border agency Frontex and recently told MEPs that Croat border guards are saving lives.

She headed the authority in charge of internal security funds, which financed all the border police equipment along the external border of Croatia with Bosnia and Herzegovina.

She had also taken the lead in setting up a so-called independent monitoring system to ensure Croat border police respect fundamental rights.

Similar systems are slated elsewhere under a proposal from the European Commission to overhaul the EU's asylum and migration policies.

But Zajovic disputed the Croat system, noting it was set up by the Croatian interior ministry to monitor the Croatian interior ministry.

"What could possibly go wrong?," warned Zajovic.

Zajovic also pointed out that border monitors only have access to police stations and not along the 'green zone', an area where most people try to cross and where she says pushbacks are taking place.

She also said an interim monitoring report, released by the Croat authority, had initially mentioned pushbacks but was then removed within hours of publication.

The testimonies come at a time when Croatia is set to join the Schengen-border free zone, following a discussion among EU interior minsters in Brussels on Thursday.

Migration is a major factor in Croatia's addition to the zone, as the EU piles on greater pressure for Western Balkan nations to crack down on routes.

This includes expanding Frontex's role, allowing it to patrol borders outside the European Union.

Ministers are also discussing EU rules on instrumentalisation, a concept that allows national authorities to derogate from asylum laws should Belarus or Turkey be blamed for sending large numbers into a neighbouring EU state.

"We are beyond the point of denying that push backs exist," said Hope Barker, who co-authored the report with Zajovic.

"We have video evidence, we have footage, we have medical reports and over 1,000 testimonies. And this is just the data that we managed to collect," she said.

She said some people have been thrown into rivers with their hands still zip locked, while others have been shot at.

This second, and latest, edition of the Black Book covers Albania, Austria, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Poland, the Pyrenees, Romania, Serbia and Slovenia.

Cornelia Ernst, a German Left MEP, also faulted the European Commission.

"It doesn't trigger infringement procedures against countries who do this," she said.

She also said the EU should cut funds for countries that carry out illegal pushbacks.

Frontex leadership candidates grilled by MEPs

Terezija Gras from Croatia, Dutchman Hans Leijtens, and Frontex's current interim executive director Aija Kalnaja, are all competing for a job left vacant by the resignation of Fabrice Leggeri.

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