Croatia: Damning new report slams systematic police abuses at country’s borders

Croatian authorities have consistently assaulted refugees and migrants and denied them access to asylum, in contravention of European and International law, said Amnesty International, in response to a damning report released by the Council of Europe’s Committee on Prevention of Torture (CPT) today.

The CPT’s report on the treatment of migrants and asylum seekers by the Croatian police confirmed research from Amnesty International and other groups which have found consistent abuses in Croatia’s border areas over the past four years. After visiting Croatia in August 2020, the CPT’s report was formally adopted in November 2020, however its publication was delayed as Croatian authorities did not provide consent for its publication.

“In the last few years thousands of people have recounted how Croatian police assaulted them as they tried to enter the country and refused to let them request asylum. This long-awaited report confirms their stories and numerous reports of widespread pushbacks and abuse, which the Croatian government can now no longer deny.

Massimo Moratti, Director for Research of Amnesty International in Europe

The CPT examined numerous allegations of physical ill-treatment of migrants and asylum seekers by the Croatian police and concluded that, in a significant number of cases, the injuries suffered were consistent with those typically sustained in law-enforcement operations.

The CPT documented cases of people being kicked, repeatedly struck with rubber batons, barrels of automatic weapons, or wooden sticks, or attacked by police dogs. In some cases, people intercepted by the Croatian police were stripped of their possessions, including clothes, shoes, and even underwear, and forced to walk for kilometres to the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“The violence and abuse documented here point to a systematic and deliberate practice designed to punish those who try to cross the border. It may amount to torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment on the part of the Croatian authorities,” said Massimo Moratti, Director for Research of Amnesty International in Europe.

The CPT concluded that Croatian authorities’ attempts to justify the abuses documented in the report do not constitute a plausible explanation for the many serious injuries compatible with police ill-treatment.

Lack of accountability

The CPT strongly criticised Croatian authorities’ failure to conduct thorough and timely investigations into complaints of police misconduct and noted that the files of a few completed cases “fail to demonstrate any fact-finding investigative acts worthy of the name.” Moreover, the CPT noted that these “investigations”, which should have been conducted by an independent body, were instead carried out by police officers themselves, undermining any notion of independence or impartiality.

“The CPT’s scathing comments about the failure of Croatian authorities to properly investigate ill-treatment confirm the Croatian government’s long-standing tactic of   vehemently denying any wrongdoing while effectively preventing any independent scrutiny of its abuses.  This has allowed violence to continue unchecked and with impunity,” said Massimo Moratti.

In July, the Croatian government finally set up an oversight mechanism which was meant to provide independent human rights monitoring of border-related operations. The CPT noted that effective human rights monitoring should be financially and operationally independent and have unfettered access, without notice, to border areas, relevant documentation and the victims of alleged violations. In practice, however, the authorities and the European Commission, which supported the mechanism’s establishment with funds and expertise, failed to ensure that it meets these standards.

The EU’s failure to hold Croatia to account

The European Commission has not taken any decisive action against Croatia despite overwhelming and credible reports of gross human rights abuses at the Croatian borders, some of which may have been committed with the assistance of EU funds. In fact, the Commission provided additional emergency funding to Croatia in July 2021 without seeking guarantees from the Croatian authorities that the allegations of ill-treatment would be effectively investigated, and that the monitoring mechanism would comply with key standards of independence, effectiveness and accountability.

“The Commission keeps missing opportunities to hold Croatia to account for widespread violations of EU law while continuing to support it with additional funds and resources. This raises serious questions about the EU’s potential complicity in human rights violations that are regularly documented on Croatian borders,” said Massimo Moratti, Director for Research of Amnesty International in Europe.

“The European Commission has long claimed that the consistent and credible reports by human rights organisations and media have not been officially confirmed. After today, there can be no doubt about the abuses being committed.” 

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Numerous reports over the past four years have revealed how the Croatian intervention police routinely assault men, women and teenagers trying to enter the country, destroy their belongings and often strip their clothes and shoes off before forcing them to walk for hours through snow and cold rivers. 

The CPT’s report comes less than two weeks after the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Croatia violated the rights of a six-year-old Afghan girl who was hit and killed by a train after being pushed back to Serbia in 2017.

In November 2020, European Ombudsman opened an inquiry into the possible failure of the European Commission to ensure that Croatian authorities respected fundamental rights while conducting EU-funded border operations against migrants and refugees. The inquiry was triggered by Amnesty International’s complaint.

Link to the CPT press release and report: