The chancellor and the German center-right candidate for the top EU post head to the Balkans before the European Parliament elections. Croatia plays an important role in keeping displaced people at the EU's periphery.
On Saturday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Manfred Weber, a member of the European Parliament for Bavaria's Christian Social Union, will meet Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic. Their visit comes ahead of the elections for the European Parliament, scheduled for May 23-26. Croatia has become the bloc's Balkan wall, instrumental in cutting off displaced people before they can travel deeper into the European Union. The Swiss public broadcaster SRF recently revealed that Croatian border police mistreat people in their custody and violate human rights.
SRF footage secretly shot at the border with Bosnia-Herzegovina shows Croatian police deporting people in "push-back operations." People who had already reached EU soil and applied for asylum were threatened with violence and illegally coerced into leaving to neighboring Bosnia. Human rights organizations have long reported Croatia's use of this practice. And now there is even visual evidence of it.
Many of these people hail from Pakistan, Algeria and Afghanistan. One told Swiss journalists that Croatian police had driven them to a forest on the border with Bosnia. "They opened the van door and told us to get out one by one," he said. "They destroyed our mobiles and kept our money. Then they beat and kicked us, telling us to go back to Bosnia."
Croatian border police are breaching international law and EU regulations, Julija Kranjec of the Zagreb-based Centre for Peace Studies, told DW. All who apply for asylum within the European Union must have their cases processed. Each case must be individually assessed in accordance to the rule of law.
Croatia's Interior Ministry denies reports that border police are defying the law. The official take is that authorities are simply doing what they must to prevent people from "illegally" entering the European Union. The ministry also cited the possibility of landmines in the border region and claimed that it was because of the explosives that Croatian police accompanied people to safety on the nearest forest road. The ministry denies victims' accounts of being beaten by Croatian border police.
In late 2018, the watchdog organization Border Violence Monitoring released secretly recorded footage apparently showing Croatian police marching displaced people to Bosnia. More recently, BVM reported that a jail has been established in the town of Korenica, where asylum applicants are being held illegally and in inhumane conditions before ultimately being sent across the border.
"For over two years, there have been reports by international human rights organizations and eyewitness that such things are happening," Kraniec said. "And the Croatian human rights commissioner has written about this, too. But nothing has changed." The Interior Ministry claims to investigate reports, but the denials keep coming and evidence of wrongdoing is never found.
'A blind eye'
In 2015, hundreds of thousands of displaced people arrived in the European Union via what was known at the time as the Balkan route. Ever since transit was closed off along Hungary's borders with Serbia and Croatia, thousands of displaced people have sought to enter the bloc from Bosnia and then travel onward via Croatia. In 2018, Bosnian authorities registered 21,000 migrants on their way through.
Croatian officials know full well that few displaced people hope to lodge their asylum applications there and are merely using the country to transit to wealthier EU member states. Nevertheless, they are keen to present Croatia as the uncompromising guard of the European Union's external borders. "The government's top foreign policy priority is to join the Schengen area, which has no internal border checks between EU member states," Kraniec said. "Croatia wants to show it is able to protect the EU's external border," she added. "And for this it is willing to turn a blind eye to human rights violations and the abuse of refugees."
Croatia is not necessarily exceptional among EU members in its mistreatment of displaced people. "We have reports that other countries along the EU external border are applying similar practices, as do some along the bloc's internal frontiers," Kraniec said.
Just two members of the European Parliament have written to the EU's executive body to fiercely criticize Croatia's illegal deportations. However, top EU officials have had no public response. And Swiss media reported that Dimitris Avramopoulos, the European commissioner for migration, has also refused to comment on the latest footage of Croatian police assaulting displaced people.
In light of this, it is highly unlikely Chancellor Merkel and Weber, the front-runner for the pan-EU center right, will ask Prime Minister Plenkovic to explain his country's border practices when they visit Croatia on Saturday.