Welcome to Schengen, Croatia: But who paid the price?6 min read

 In Opinion, Politics, Southeastern Europe

On 1 January 2023, Croatia began to dismantle its border crossings with Slovenia and Hungary. Welcome to Schengen, Croatia, but who paid the price for upholding free movement inside the border-free area?

I first moved to Croatia as an exchange student in 2018. Before coming to Croatia, and as a person who grew up with a “strong” passport and living inside the golden cage of fortress Europe, I had never seen a physical border crossing. I soon became familiar with the sight of state borders, however, as I travelled from Croatia to Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH), and Serbia. Together with travel came the inevitable realisation that borders are sites that exude violence, both the overt kind, as well as more subtly. Even now, I remember the anxiety that arose every time the police officers entered the bus to collect passports, or while waiting in line for border control. I remember the difference in the time it took for the police to check my passport compared to a non-EU one. I remember the Afghan woman who was not allowed to cross the border and the Turkish boy who was kicked off of the bus even before arriving at the frontier because, according to the bus driver, his passport was not valid.

Assembling and dismantling the Balkan Route since 2015

Five years before my arrival, Croatia joined the EU and, in May 2015, it declared “its readiness to start the Schengen evaluation process in all relevant policy areas.” This meant that the country was preparing to become part of a border-free area where its citizens would have complete freedom of movement. Among other things, this freedom would be given in exchange for the “effective management” of EU borders, which, among other things, implies securitisation of borders and strong controls for third-country nationals. The securitisation of Croatia’s borders became quite obvious after the 2016 EU-Turkey deal. This agreement aimed to close the  Balkan Route, which was the pathway of mainly Middle Eastern refugees passing first from Greece or Turkey to Croatia or Serbia in order to arrive in one of the countries in Western Europe. This land route was seen by the EU as a key issue because of the impact that the corridor had in terms of migration and border security.

After the peak of migration fluxes in July of 2015, Hungary erected a fence at the border with Serbia in order to counter the migration flow, which was consequently re-directed toward Croatia. In October, Hungary decided to also tighten its borders with Croatia, and in that moment the direction of migration fluxes shifted from Croatia to Slovenia rather than from Croatia to Hungary. From then, the illegal border crossings of refugees increased dramatically. This growth of irregular entries produced a chain of pushbacks at the beginning of 2016: refugees were returned from Slovenia to Croatia and from Croatia back to Serbia. The Croatian border police started to conduct a selective approach to people at its borders. At first, the police were excluding entry to anyone who was not coming from Syria, Afghanistan, or Iraq, but then the selection became tighter and most of the push backs included also some of the asylum seekers who were coming from these countries. The selection based on the country of origin also led to detention, often backed up by intimidation and violence.

While the non-surprising failure of the EU-Turkey deal to result in the closure of the Balkan Route was becoming a reality, Croatia gained its role as the guardian of the southeastern EU external border, and began to implement security policies suitable for the protection of the borders and in guaranteeing a decrease in the number of arrivals. In 2017, around 3,242 people had been pushed back  to Serbia, and most of Croatia’s asylum applications had not even been examined.  In 2018, concerns regarding the criminalisation of solidarity in Croatia, illegal collective pushbacks, and physical and psychological abuses perpetrated by the Croatian border police against migrants, were brought to the surface by several civil society organisations.

Violence and illegal pushbacks: Ways to externalise the southeastern EU borders

These practices were in violation of EU legislation. The violence perpetrated by the Croatian police at the EU external borders made the journey of refugees along the Balkan Route extremely dangerous. In many cases, migrants were beaten and deprived of their money and phones and then pushed back to Serbia or Bosnia. Between 2017 and 2018, 26 deaths occurred along the new Balkan Route. Some of these deaths happened during the pushbacks, with the most striking case being the death of Madina Hussiny, a six-year old Afghan child who died on a train track in Serbia after being pushed-back with her family by the Croatian police. Shortly before Croatia’s accession to the Schengen Area in 2022, the ECHR rejected Croatia’s appeal and confirmed that Croatia was guilty of the death of Madina while her family were recognized as victims of illegal expulsion.

In February of the same year, a report by the European Ombudsman stated that the European Commission (EC) failed at ensuring the respect of fundamental rights by the Croatian border police. Indeed, a monitoring mechanism was put in place at the Croatian border only in 2021, three years after the EU started to allocate emergency funds to the country. In 2019, Amnesty International stated “by prioritising border control over compliance with international law, European governments are not just turning a blind eye to vicious assaults by the Croatian police, but also funding their activities.” Furthermore, Amnesty accused the EU of being complicit with Croatia in its illegal deportations to Bosnia and Herzegovina, and of wanting to create a legal limbo in the BiH where asylum seekers could be detained to prevent new migration flows at the EU’s doors. In 2018, the EC provided Croatia with 30 million euros to “help reinforce border management at the EU’s external borders.” According to Amnesty, those funds were additionally allocated to Croatia despite the evidence regarding the increasing unlawful repressive measures adopted by the border police to securitize the EU external borders.

2023: Eight years later, the Schengen reward

Croatia seems to have completed its homework in regards to protecting the freedom of movement between the internal borders of the European Union, and on 1 January 2023 it was rewarded by finally joining the border free area after having passed the EC’s evaluation mechanism. Interestingly, as many civil societies organisations and local and international NGOs have pointed out, the Schengen Borders Code requires member states to “comply with “international and EU law, including the Charter of Fundamental Rights, the Refugee Convention, and in particular an obligation to comply with the principle of non-refoulement.” However, it seems impossible to assert that Croatia managed the EU external borders by following the due procedures. Collective and violent pushbacks,, degrading treatment to human dignity, and torture and abuses towards vulnerable categories are just few of the human and fundamental right’s breaches that have been reported and documented during the years by some of the most active organizations.

The prize has been given, but the cost in human lives has been higher than ever.

Feature Image: Canva
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