Wednesday

2nd Dec 2020

Opinion

EU silence on sickening scenes at Croatian border

  • The EU Commission's silence over the distressing events at Croatia's borders is deafening (Photo: Danish Refugee Council)

Those working with refugees and migrants in Bosnia and Herzegovina, close to the Croatian border, have become accustomed to seeing shocking scenes.

People are frequently forced back across the border, beaten, stripped, having had their documents burned, or having had dogs set on them.

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  • The pictures are chilling; the lack of an EU response even more so (Photo: Danish Refugee Council)

But men returning with orange crosses spray-painted on their heads or brutally beaten and smeared with food represented a new, dark, low.

The incidents, originally documented by local NGOs and Amnesty International, and recently reported by The Guardian and EUobserver, were confirmed by various international humanitarian organisations supporting refugees and migrants in the camps in Una-Sana Canton near the Croatian border.

The pictures are chilling; the lack of an EU response even more so.

Impunity is the norm at the border. Reports of violence by Croatian police continue to go unchecked.

The humiliation of people seeking safety in Europe by painting crosses on their heads is just the latest in a long list of incidents, and a symptom of a wider trend of violent pushbacks and other severe human rights violations taking place at the EU's external borders, which we also observe in Bulgaria, Hungary and Greece.

The failure of EU institutions to call out individual member states for their unlawful behaviour has allowed these practices to flourish and encouraged further heavy-handed deterrence tactics by some countries.

Despite lockdowns across Europe due to the Covid-19 pandemic, pushbacks from Croatia into Bosnia and Herzegovina continued in early 2020, with NGO monitors recording over 1,600 recorded incidents of migrants being pushed back in April alone.

Men, women, teenagers, and entire families have been assaulted, physically abused, subjected to arbitrary detention, and their belongings destroyed.

Refugees and migrants have consistently reported how police stripped them of their clothes and shoes and forced them to walk for kilometres in bad weather back to the Bosnian border.

'Systematic and deliberate'

These are not isolated events. The sheer number of cases and consistency of allegations point to a systematic and deliberate policy on the part of the Croatian authorities.

Simultaneously, there have been cases of hate speech and intolerance towards refugees and migrants across the region - including attempts to portray them as the main carriers of coronavirus and a threat to public health.

Several countries have imposed mandatory quarantines on refugee and migrant camps, without providing people confined with essential support or the resources to effectively protect themselves against infection.

In their public statements, both the vice-president of the European Commission, Margaritis Schinas, and the European commissioner for home affairs, Ylva Johansson, repeatedly expressed their dedication to fundamental rights, the right to seek asylum and the need to fight extremism and xenophobia.

During his hearing with MEPs, before being confirmed as a commissioner, Schinas defined "our European way of life" as 'being open to the world and extending heart and home to those who are less fortunate'.

"At its core", he said, "being European means protecting the most vulnerable in our societies."

European treaties and laws also reiterate respect for fundamental rights, including the right to seek asylum and respect for the principle of non-refoulement.

Deafening silence in Brussels

The Schengen border code, which sets out rules on the control of EU borders, explicitly states that border checks should be carried out with full respect for human dignity.

Yet, the Commission's silence over the distressing events at Croatia's borders is deafening.

There has been no public denunciation, no call for the Croatian government to properly investigate the evidence or serious attempt to engage in independent monitoring.

Repeated calls by the European Parliament to investigate the abuses have been met by a tepid response, weakly pointing at difficulties in verifying claims and Croatian authorities' inevitable denial of any wrongdoing.

Where does the EU draw the line if these widespread abuses can continue with impunity?

Credible reports of hundreds of incidents documenting unlawful practices and violence at the EU's external borders should prompt effective independent monitoring, transparent investigations and accountability for blatant breaches of EU law.

If the European Commission is seriously committed to its fundamental values, it is time that it puts words into practice and decisively condemns unlawful returns and violence at its external borders and demands that perpetrators of such illegal acts are held to account.

How we react to these human rights abuses now defines who we are, and who we become, as Europeans. 

The degrading treatment of refugees and migrants undermines Europe's laws and its image.

With the European commission set to announce new migration and asylum policies, representing a 'fresh start' in negotiations, the impunity at Europe's borders must end.

Author bio

Eve Geddie is head of the European institutions office for Amnesty International. Birte Hald is the Brussels representative of the Danish Refugee Council. Anita Bay Bundegaard is EU director of Save the Children. This op-ed has the support of Human Rights Watch, JRS Europe, Oxfam, the International Rescue Committee (IRC), and Refugee Rights Europe (RRE).

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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