The European Ombudsman’s office has announced it will open an inquiry into the European Commission’s possible complicity in Croatian border violence against migrants and refugees.
Human rights groups have documented violations over years, including severe beatings and sexual assault of migrants and refugees by Croatian authorities. Women and minors have not been spared from the violence.
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After enduring physical abuse, migrants and asylum seekers have been pushed by Croatian authorities from European Union member Croatia back across the border to Bosnia and Herzegovina, rights groups have said.
The route through the Bosnia-Croatia border is popular with refugees attempting to cross into Croatia, with the aim of reaching Western Europe.
The EU said on Monday it would investigate the possible failure of the European Commission to ensure that Croatian authorities respected fundamental rights while conducting EU-funded border operations.
Eve Geddie, the director of Amnesty International’s European Institutions Office, said on Tuesday the announcement of an inquiry “is a significant first step towards addressing these flagrant abuses and providing accountability”.
“By continuing to fund border operations and giving a green light for Croatia’s accession to the Schengen area, the commission abdicated its responsibilities to monitor how EU assistance is used and sent a dangerous signal that blatant human rights violations can continue with no questions asked,” Geddie said.
Human rights watchdog Amnesty International filed a complaint in September 2020, which triggered the investigation.
The complaint argued that the commission turned a blind eye to reports of abuses and that it failed to establish an Independent Monitoring Mechanism to ensure that Croatia’s border measures, many of which were funded through EU emergency assistance, complied with fundamental rights, Amnesty International said in a statement on Tuesday.
Croatia is a beneficiary of more than 108 million euros ($127.6m) under the EU’s Asylum Migration and International Fund (AMIF) and has received an additional 23.3 million euros ($27.5m) in emergency assistance for migration and border management since 2017, according to the human rights group.
The emergency assistance to Croatia covered in large part the operational costs, including the salaries of police forces that have been repeatedly accused of unlawful pushbacks and abuse of migrants and asylum seekers, it said.
Last month, the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) collected testimonies from more than 70 refugees and migrants at the Miral camp in western Bosnia after they were violently pushed back from Croatia.
The DRC called the abuse “horrifying” as the asylum seekers, including minors, had sustained “severe injuries” while detained by authorities in Croatia.
In many instances, their valuables were also confiscated and they were stripped naked and had their belongings thrown into a fire.
The alleged violations, which also included a case of sexual assault, prompted calls by the European Commission that Croatia investigate the cases.
The ombudsman has set out a series of questions to the commission and asked it to reply by January 31.