After four years of delays and mounting concerns of a violent pushback against migrants at the Croatian border with Bosnia and Serbia, Croatian authorities have finally launched an investigation into police behaviour.
The decision comes after footage emerged allegedly showing a masked Croatian police officer beating young asylum seekers with a stick at the border with Bosnia.
The footage was collected as part of an eight-month investigation by reporters across seven countries, collating video and forensic evidence of violent pushbacks along the Croatian border. The investigation also found evidence of violence at the borders in Greece and Romania.
The EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson described the reports from the Croatian border as “shocking.”
“This needs to be investigated, but they seem to indicate some kind of orchestration of violence at our external borders,” she said. Disproportionate use of force against migrants is banned under EU law.
The Council of Europe’s (CoE) Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, tweeted that it was “high time” that the CoE “take action” to end serious human rights violations.
Earlier this year, authorities established a Croatian border monitoring mechanism following months of discussions with the European Commission. The need for such a mechanism became more urgent after concerns over human rights violations cast doubt over the country’s bid to join the EU’s passport-free Schengen zone.
Following a freedom of information request by the Centre of Peace Studies in Croatia, non-government groups slammed the mechanism as “toothless” and “ineffective.” These criticisms have only compounded following allegations that violence along the Croatian border is, in fact, state sanctioned.
According to German media outlet Der Spiegel, Croatian officials confirmed that members of special police units have hidden their identity with masks and unmarked uniforms as part of systematic pushbacks under Operation Koridor. The police operation was reportedly established in 2016, and is co-financed by the EU.
Moreover, French media outlet Libération met with a police officer involved in these operations, who said that the officers are aware the violence is illegal but carry it out under orders from the government and Interior Ministry.
According to investigative journalist Djurdjica Klancir, officers “[feel] like the protectors of Croatia and the EU; they always had the feeling that the operation was being carried out with the blessing of the Croatian government and the EU”.
According to human rights groups, there were more than 16,000 pushbacks along the Croatian border with Bosnia in 2020 alone. Mistreatment of migrants is, reportedly, used as a deliberate tactic to deter people from attempting to enter the EU.