Human Rights Watch says the EU routinely turns a "blind eye" to brutality toward migrants and asylum seekers. Pushbacks have long been the "standard operating procedure" for Croatia’s border police, the watchdog added.
Croatian police "regularly and often violently push back refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants to Bosnia and Herzegovina without assessing their asylum requests or protection needs," Human Rights Watch said in a statement on Wednesday (May 3).
Citing figures from the Danish Refugee Council, the rights watchdog said nearly 30,000 pushbacks had taken place between January 2020 and December 2022.
Around 13% of pushbacks recorded in 2022 were of minors -- both accompanied and unaccompanied ones. Afghanistan is said to be the most common country of origin among those suffering reported pushbacks. Since Croatia joined the Schengen area in January, pushbacks have reportedly been on the rise.
Human Rights Watch said that Croatian border police have long been using pushbacks as a "standard operating procedure," and that the government has "bamboozled EU institutions through deflection and empty promises." The watchdog called on the European Commission to take concrete steps in investigating the violations.
Croatian officials meanwhile continue to deny the allegations, according to the rights organization.
Border police subject migrants to 'degrading treatment'
Human Rights Watch listed its findings in a 94-page report entitled "'Like we were just animals': Pushbacks of people seeking protection from Croatia to Bosnia and Herzegovina." The organization said it had interviewed more than 100 people, including more than 20 unaccompanied children and two dozen parents traveling with young children.
The report cited several people as saying Croatian police had pushed them back dozens of times, routinely ignoring their asylum requests. Some pushbacks highlighted in the report took place as recently as April 2023.
"Border police frequently steal or destroy phones, money, identity documents, and other personal property, and often subject children and adults to humiliating and degrading treatment, sometimes in ways that are explicitly racist," the report said.
Human Rights Watch described that in a typical pushback, Croatian police do not transfer people to authorities of Bosnia and Herzegovina at regular border posts. Instead, they transfer them to points elsewhere along the border and order them to cross. Migrants are then forced to make their ways across rivers or dense forests, often during nighttime.
EU pays for border security, fails to respect human rights
The watchdog condemned the EU for financing Croatia's border management while failing to ensure that international human rights standards and EU law are adhered to. Their report cited mistreatment, collective expulsion and the returning of individuals to states where they face risks of human rights abuses.
Human Rights Watch also said that an EU-funded observatory intended to ensure that procedures are in line with the law "does not work independently enough."
Seeking asylum in Bosnia and Herzegovina is an unlikely option for many migrants. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), only five people in Bosnia and Herzegovina received recognition as refugees in 2021 (up from one in 2020).
Human Rights Watch said the Croatian Ministry of the Interior did not respond to their requests for a meeting or for comment on their findings.