Blog post by Karla Žeravčić, Filip Bjelinski and Ana Kršinić (all students at the Faculty of Law of the University of Zagreb, Croatia) and forms part of a series of blog posts examining the implementation of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration.
For most of its history, Croatia has been a country of emigration. Since joining the European Union (further EU) in 2013, the emigration rate has become the second-highest in the Union. However, over the past years, Croatia has served as a transit country for third-country nationals trying to reach Western Europe. While most refugees and migrants do not see Croatia as a destination country, a small number of immigrants do decide to stay. With being both a transit country and a destination state Croatia is forced to constantly develop its migration policy, which consists of an integration policy as well. In this blog, we review Croatia’s report on the implementation of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (further GCM), which was submitted by the government to the first regional review, held in November of 2020. We aim to reflect on some of the objectives that were prioritized but also present those that were left behind by the Croatian Government.
As one of the 27 Member States of the EU, Croatia’s policies and legislations are closely linked to ones created by the EU. During the Presidency of the Council of the EU in the first half of 2020, one of Croatia’s main goals was ‘finding a comprehensive solution for a sustainable and effective migration and asylum policy’. Additionally, the Republic of Croatia participates in the European scheme for the transfer and resettlement of third-country nationals or stateless persons who meet the criteria for international protection. Currently, Croatia is working alongside the other Member States to uphold the New Pact on Migration and Asylum.
On a national level, Croatia has mostly prioritized the strengthening of its integration system. From 2017 to 2019, Croatia had created a National Action Plan that consisted of a series of measures in the field of ‘accommodation and housing, social welfare and health care, education, employment, interdepartmental and international cooperation, and public awareness’. To fulfil and improve its integration policy the Croatian Government works alongside civil society organisations such as the Red Cross, the Center for Peace Studies and the Jesuit Refugee Services.
Some of the actions taken upon Croatia in its Action Plan were:
- ‘Thematic and educational workshops and consultations on the rights and obligations of persons granted international protection’;
- ‘Informing persons granted international protection on the use of health care in the Republic of Croatia’;
- ‘the Implementation of Croatian language learning for all age’;
- ‘Cooperation with state administration bodies, civil society organisations in regional and international’;
- ‘a Public campaign at the national level to sensitize the public and reduce social prejudices’.
According to the Report on the implementation of measures of the Action Plan, most of the measures were either fully implemented or partially implemented. A small number of measures were not conducted.
During the implementation of the Action Plan measures, Croatia encountered certain difficulties that resulted in the lack/partial lack of implementation or proved to be issues that will enable future integration. For example, one of the biggest problems in multiple measures proved to be the language barrier from both the persons who have been granted international protection and the people assisting them. Another illustration is the numerous problems in the realization of health care. Even though persons under international protection have the right to health care to the same extent as insured people in Croatia. In reality, many persons under international protection encounter refusal because health care professionals are not adequately informed on how to enrol such patients in the information system or how to issue referrals and prescriptions.
Unfortunately, since 2019 the Croatian Government has not made any steps towards an Action Plan for the current and coming years making the only available data on integration outdated. As reported by the official web page of the Government’s Office for Human Rights and the Rights of National Minorities, in 2020 Croatia conducted one project, ‘INCLuDE – the Interdepartmental Cooperation in the Empowerment of Third-Country Nationals’, whose general goal was to ‘strengthen the preconditions for social inclusion of third-country nationals in Croatian society’. Furthermore, the project activities were aimed at ‘improving the system of development and monitoring of national integration policies, strengthening interdepartmental cooperation of stakeholders in local and regional self-governments units’.
Cooperation with civil society organisations
The most prominent examples of cooperation between the Government of Croatia and civil society organisations are seen through policy advisory and provision of services. The latter includes working with refugees and migrants in areas such as social care, health care, accommodation, employment, education and legal services.
Examples of such services are achieved through the work of the Jesuit Refugee Service that offers legal aid to refugees, migrants and asylum seekers; Croatian language learning; tutoring sessions for those attending school or university; as well as other forms of assistance for the most efficient integration in the community. Other examples include the services provided by the Croatian legal centre such as providing legal advice to migrants and refugees and the monitoring of forced removals or the Center for peace studies.
Given the fact that Croatia became the first country of entry into the EU after the formation of the West Balkans migration route, border security and conduct towards asylum seekers and other migrants that try to enter Croatia irregularly have become one of the most prominent questions in regards to the Croatian implementation of the GCM.
Contrary to the positive display of the measures taken and goals achieved by the Croatian government, independent monitoring conducted in 2019 and 2020 by different NGOs provide a much more negative outlook of the situation.
The most notable divergence between the claims made by the Croatian Government and independent monitors were in the area of pushbacks and availability of asylum request applications as well as the housing conditions in Croatian reception centres.
- Regarding the question of whether the pushbacks are taking place in Croatia, there have been more than 600 testimonies by migrants and potential asylum seekers from 2016 up to today on the Border Violence Monitoring Network with the last one dating back to 26th February 2021. Most of the testimonies contain photographs of injuries that were allegedly caused by the Croatian border police officers. Adding to this, an Amnesty International Report published in 2019 regarding the pushbacks and asylum protection availability in Croatia stated that ‘All 94 persons interviewed in the temporary accommodation camps in Bihać and Velika Kladuša have been pushed back to Bosnia and Herzegovina from Croatia or Slovenia, at least once. Many have made several unsuccessful attempts to reach Schengen borders only to encounter Croatian police who promptly returned them to Bosnia and Herzegovina without registering their asylum claims. Those intercepted on the Croatian territory were told that “there was no asylum in Croatia”, shouted at and frequently beaten and detained for hours without food or water, before being transported in overcrowded, windowless and poorly ventilated police vans and delivered back to the Bosnian border’. While it is clear that there are numerous accounts of people being returned to questionable conditions in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Croatian Government denies all allegations of alleged violations.
- In regards to the conditions of reception centres in Croatia, it needs to be looked at through the objective of providing access to basic services to migrants. While it is true that Croatia and the EU have invested approximately 6 million Euros to build two new ‘transit’ centres in Trilj and Tovarnik in 2014, some concerns remain in regards to adequate access to basic services. Most notably, it was pointed out that a nurse who is available at all times and a doctor who visits the reception centre do not constitute adequate availability of medical assistance. Moreover, it was noted that the lack of psychological assistance for migrants needs to be addressed as soon as possible.
- Lastly, independent monitors have stated that there has been a visible improvement in the living conditions in the Ježevo reception centre where all detained asylum seekers are moved to form the two aforementioned ‘transit’ centres in Trilj and Tovarnik. It was noted that the following refurbishment, the dormitories had appropriate lighting and ventilation. However, the committee noted that dormitories were too small—in particular, seven male dormitories had 12 beds in a space of just 30 square metres. In turn, each of the three women’s dormitories measured approximately 11.5 square metres and contained four beds and a fully partitioned sanitary annexe. Beds were the only piece of furniture in the dormitories, and detainees were not provided with any personal lockable space for their personal items. The CPT also reported that some of the showers were not working or had insufficient hot water.
In conclusion, the independent monitoring which takes place in Croatia paints a picture that is almost the polar opposite of the one presented by the Croatian Government. While some legislative reforms have taken place, the problems that were present in Croatia well before the introduction of GCM seem to not be addressed properly in reality.
Next steps: An independent monitoring mechanism
As a Member State of the EU, Croatia will soon be bound by a new EU Regulation governing the screening process of third-country nationals at the external borders. One of the most important novelties of this Regulation is the introduction of an independent monitoring mechanism by each Member State. This mechanism would be put in place in order to act as a safeguard of EU and International law. However, for such a mechanism to create a real safeguard for any person who wishes to enter Croatia or who tried to enter Croatia irregularly, clear sanctions need to be imposed on Croatia if it does not respect the findings of any independent monitor introduced by this mechanism. In the case where such responsibility does not exist, the mere introduction of this mechanism will not provide for a sufficient level of protection of the objectives highlighted in the New Migration Pact.
While researching the Croatian Government’s commitment to integrating the GCM objectives into its migration policy, we came to the conclusion that the GCM is not seen as a primary influence in Croatia’s policy change or new practices. In fact, with being part of the EU, Croatia is required to bring changes that align with EU policies, which coincidentally ends up aligning with the GCM objectives. This may be explained by the fact that – unlike most EU policies – the GCM has a non-binding nature.
Furthermore, Croatia’s most notable actions are related to integration policies aimed at people who have been granted asylum or subsidiary protection. However, in reality, persons granted international protection are still experiencing significant challenges in accessing basic services. Proving that the work taken upon in the Action Plan(s) should not have been paused, but in fact should have been assessed, adjusted and continued.
On the other hand, taking into account the hostile treatment of refugees and migrants on Croatia’s borders, it is obvious that this matter is still not taken seriously. Speaking at a presentation for the ‘Black Book of pushbacks’, German MEP Cornelia Ernst stated that, during her visit to multiple EU’s external borders, wherever she went, she found children, women and men suffering. How shocked she was by the ‘endless reports of ruthless, sadistic and degrading violence’ and how the ‘Black Book’ sheds ‘much-needed light on this dark chapter of the EU’. Unfortunately, Croatia was one of the countries whose violent and illegal expulsions from its territory took the most space out of the 1500 page publication, showcasing that these actions do not only fall far from the GCM objectives or EU principles but also from upholding fundamental human rights.
 ‘Croatian Emigration Rate Second Highest in European Union’ (Total Croatia News, 12 February 2021) < https://www.total-croatia-news.com/politics/50555-croatian-emigration-rate> accessed 8 March 2021
 ‘Statistics Croatia’ (Asylum Information Database) <https://asylumineurope.org/reports/country/croatia/statistics/#_ftn1> accessed 8 March 2021
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 ‘The Croatian Legal Center has started implementing two new projects – “Providing legal advice in the process of granting international protection” and “Monitoring of forced removals”’ (HPC) <https://www.hpc.hr/2019/04/26/hrvatski-pravni-centar-zapoceo-je-izvoditi-dva-nova-projekta-pruzanje-pravnog-savjetovanja-u-postupku-odobrenja-medunarodne-zastite-i-monitoring-prisilnih-udaljenja/> accessed 22 March 2021
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 Border Violence Monitoring Network, https://www.borderviolence.eu/violence-reports/
 Amnesty International, Pushed to the Edge, Violence and abuse against refugees and migrants along the Balkans Route, https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/eur05/9964/2019/en/
 Croatian Minister of Interior Letter to Amnesty International, 8 March (received on 12 March), Index.hr, Božinović odgovorio Vijeću Europe o nasilju policije nad migrantima, 5 October 2018., HRT, Otvoreno: Ugrožavaju li migranti sigurnost u Hrvatskoj, 18 December 2018, https://vijesti.hrt.hr/478672/otvoreno-ugrozavaju-limigranti-sigurnost-u-hrvatskoj
 Global Detention Project, Country Report, Immigration Detention in Croatia: Shrinking Space for Independent Monitoring, April 2019
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 COM(2020) 612 final, REGULATION OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL introducing a screening of third country nationals at the external borders and amending Regulations (EC) No 767/2008, (EU) 2017/2226, (EU) 2018/1240 and (EU) 2019/817, Brussels, 23.9.2020
 Romain Lanneau, The Commission’s proposal for a new Independent Monitoring Mechanism at the external border of the EU: a necessary but limited mechanism, EU Immigration and Asylum Law and Policy, February 2021
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 ‘Međunarodni dan migranata: Strahote s hrvatske granice objavljene u Crnoj knjizi o pushbckovima’ (CMS, 18 December 2020) < https://www.cms.hr/hr/azil-i-integracijske-politike/medunarodni-dan-migranata-strahote-s-hrvatske-granice-objavljene-u-crnoj-knjizi-o-pushbackovima> accessed 13 March 2021
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