In 2019, the main challenge continued to be a strict border regime that limits access to the territory and to the asylum procedure in Croatia.
From January to November 2019, 18,815 cases of attempts to cross the Croatian border irregularly were recorded, compared to 7,502 attempts during that same period in 2018. Overall, the Ministry of Interior stated that, from January to September 2019, it had prevented 9,487 people in their attempt to irregualrly cross the border, which marks a significant increase of 200% compared to the same period in 2018.
As regards returns from the border, the Croatian police applied the use of force for the purpose of return in 1,514 cases from January to November 2019. Out of them, 740 persons were returned on the basis of a readmission agreement, e.g. with Bosnia and Herzegovina (504 returns) and Serbia (197 returns). Some returns (about 250) were not carried out because Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as Serbia refused to accept persons who crossed their territory to reach Croatia.
Reversely, the Slovenian Ministry of Interior reported that, in the first six months of 2019, the Slovenian police returned 3,459 foreigners to Croatia pursuant to international agreements, mainly Pakistanis.
Pushback practices persisted throughout 2019. From January to September 2019, UNHCR and partners in Serbia reported that 384 pushbacks involving 2,674 persons were carried out from Croatia to Serbia; and that 289 pushbacks, involving 2,194 persons, were carried out from Croatia to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Refugees and migrants also reported that pushbacks continued to be applied. They also stated that they faced significant risks in crossing the Croatian border from Bosnia and Herzegovina as it includes crossing areas marked as mine fields.
The situation at the border is particularly worrying where it affects vulnerable groups. In April 2019, IOM staff working in the transit reception centre in Bosnia and Herzegovina reported a higher degree of movement and attempts to cross the Croatian border, including from families with children, unaccompanied children and other vulnerable individuals. Save the Children and their partner organisation from Serbia Praxis also reported about pushbacks and violence against children on the move at the Western Balkans borders in 2019, including from Croatia.
Moreover, in September 2019, the Commissariat for Refugees and Migration of the Republic of Serbia issued a statement according to which the Croatian authorities are responsible for the physical and psychological torture of a minor child from Afghanistan (i.e. he was beaten and tortured by four police officers in a room, including through electric shocks, causing important internal bleeding and fracturing his ribs), Serbian television broadcasted an interview with the minor. The Croatian Ministry of Interior stated that they were not aware of the case and that this was part of a series of unfounded allegations against the Croatian police due to its persistence and determination in protecting the national and external borders of the European Union.
Numerous other international and domestic organisations also reported on the continuation of pushbacks by the Croatian police such as the Council of Europe, the Border Violence Monitoring Network, Are You Syrious, Amnesty International, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), and Human Rights Watch. The Centre for Peace Studies, Are You Syrious and Welcome Initiative issued their 5th report on the violent and illegal pushbacks practices carried out by the Republic of Croatia. Similarly, in January 2020, the Centre for Peace Studies, the Border Violence Monitoring Network, Are You Syrious, Asylum Protection Centre and No Name Kitchen jointly published a report named “What is happening at Croatia’s external border?”. The Border Violence Monitoring Network further analysed data on pushbacks across Croatian borders in the course of 2019 and focused on the increasing violence occurring there.
Human Rights Watch has also raised awareness on the situation at the Croatian borders through the release a video of interviewed persons that have been summarily returned to Bosnia by the Croatian police in August 2019. The video further contains interviews with victims and witnesses of pushback practices, including from the mayor of Bihac, a Bosnian town at the border with Croatia. The Border Violence Monitoring Network also released a recorded footage of Croatian police officers escorting groups of migrants across the border to Bosnia and Herzegovina without following due process.  In the summer a letter from a mountaineer who witnessed police violence against migrants also appeared in the media.
Human Rights Watch further sent an open letter to the Croatian president requesting to conduct investigations on pushbacks and pointing out that collective expulsion of people, without individual assessment of their needs for international protection, violates EU law and the UN Refugee Convention.
Amnesty International also reported that human rights violations against refugees and migrants and pushbacks with denial of access to asylum occur regularly at the border between Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia. In a letter to Amnesty International, the Croatian Minister of the Interior rejected the allegations of illegal pushbacks and police violence and reiterated that the Croatian acts within the framework of national and EU law. The Minister stated that all reports of alleged police violence against refugees and migrants have been investigated by the Ministry, and that no evidence of unlawful use of force was found.
The UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, Felipe González Morales, visited Bosnia and Herzegovina at the end of September 2019 and stated he had received reliable information about violent pushbacks of migrants and asylum seekers by Croatian border police into the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina. According to these testimonies, many migrants were forcibly escorted back without going through any official procedure. While concrete tactics vary in practice, some common patterns include the capture of people on the move, the confiscation of their properties, especially communication equipment, beating with batons and chasing by dogs with the purpose of physically exhausting migrants and prevent them from attempting another crossing. A number of male migrants were reportedly stripped, beaten and forced to walk back to Bosnia and Herzegovina barefoot.
In April 2019, Members of the European Parliament sent an open letter to the European Commission asking the latter to request from Croatian authorities to immediately halt violent pushback practices and collective expulsions from its territory and to ensure that people who enter Croatia have access to the asylum procedure.
At national level, the Croatian Ombudswoman was denied access to information in 2019, similarly to 2018. In addition, at the end of March 2019, the Ombudswoman received a complaint anonymously filed by a police officer working at a Border Police Station and dealing with unlawful actions conducted by police officers on the basis of orders received from superiors. She informed the State Attorney General who did not respond. As a result, she brought the complaint to the attention of the Croatian Parliament and the relevant parliamentary committees in June 2019, in accordance with the Ombudsman Act and the National Preventive Mechanism Act. Following the absence of response of the Parliament as well, the only remaining institutional option for the Ombudsman was to inform the public under the Article 19 of the Ombudsman Act.
The State Attorney's Office of the Republic of Croatia then announced on its website that it had received an "anonymous complaint" and, after considering it, forwarded it to the competent State Attorney's Office for due proceeding. It is further stated that the Law of Criminal Procedure contains relevant provisions on who is entitled to information on the action taken upon the application filed before the State Attorney's Office and that the Ombudsman is not entitled to this type of information.
The use of a garage inside of a police station compound has been reported several times throughout 2019. It is an informal and unsanitary site of detention for large groups of apprehended people-in-transit before they are being pushed back. The Ministry of Interior rejected accusations and emphasised again that it has a zero tolerance for the use of any form of violence.
National and international media have also reported about the situation at the Croatian border. The German television channel ARD broadcasted a documentary entitled "Death on the Balkan Route". The documentary deals with the deaths of migrants and refugees trying to reach the European Union across the former Yugoslavia and part of the documentary deals with the behaviour of Croatian police towards migrants. In July 2019, the BBC broadcasted an interview of an anonymous police officer who admitted he had taken part in three "pushback" operations and knew persons who have experienced pushbacks.
Similarly in July 2019, an interview with a Croatian police officer was published in which he confirmed allegations on pushbacks brought by numerous organisations and explained how this is organised from part of the Croatian territory. In October 2019, another police officer gave anonymous statement in which he, amongst other, described how police was falsifying written reports on catching irregular migrants at the border in line with national and EU standards, while these migrants were actually intercepted 50 kilometres or more, away from the border.
In December 2019, national media reported about two Nigerians who had stayed in Croatia with valid visas for the purpose of participating to the World Universities Championship. After the Championship was over, they said that the Croatian police apprehended them in Zagreb and forcibly took them to Bosnia and Herzegovina, where they have never been before. The police officers allegedly mistook them for undocumented migrants, put them in a van and transferred them to the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina where, that day, Croatian authorities had gathered together a group of migrants who were intercepted as they were attempting to cross the country. The Ministry of Interior rejected the allegations and highlighted that the two Nigerians had checked out of the hostel and took their documents.
During an interview with Swiss television, the former Croatian president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović appeared to admit that pushbacks were taking place , although later she denied that statement.
The increasing number of reports concerning the denial of access to the asylum procedures by Croatian authorities and the return of large numbers of applicants for international protection to the border with Bosnia-Herzegovina, where they are forced to leave the country has also been recognised in legal proceedings. In July 2019, the Federal Administrative Court of Switzerland ruled to suspend the transfer of an asylum applicant to Croatia under the Dublin Regulation due to the current situation of summary returns at the Croatian border with Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The level of violence at the border should also be highlighted. Many incidents throughout 2019 have involved reports on shootings, accidents but also reports on deaths of migrants:
- In February 2019, a young man's body, probably a migrant was found in Istria, in the inaccessible forest area and it was determined that he died of freezing. The same month, a migrant has drowned in the river.
- In April 2019, a foreign national, probably an irregular migrant originating from the Middle East was severely wounded and injured by hunters during the night. Just a day after that a nineteen-year-old migrant from Pakistan was severely beaten.
- In August 2019, a 23-year-old Afghan female drowned after a van carrying migrants landed in the river, while 10 other people were rescued.
- In November 2019, a police officer in the inaccessible area of Gorski Kotar severely injured one foreign national. The Croatian Minister of Interior said that the migrant had been shot by accident. A few days later, another migrant was shot and wounded while resisting a police officer.
Pushback practices have further been reported at the beginning of 2020..
Criticism and accountability
In February 2019, the mayor of the Bosnian town of Bihac accused the Croatian police of illegally entering Bosnia and Herzegovina (BH) in the Una-Sana Canton and bringing irregular migrants that they apprehended on Croatian territory. The Croatian Interior Minister rejected the accusations. Similar allegations were voiced by the mayor in November 2019, but rejected again by the Croatian Ministry of Interior. At several occasions in 2019, the Minister of Security of Bosnia and Herzegovina,  and the Bosnian Service for Foreigners stated that they have reliable evidence, including medical records and a large number of migrant statements, that irregular migrants found in Croatian territory are being illegally returned to Bosnia and Herzegovina by Croatian police.
In 2019, the Ministry of the Interior has again denied the Ombudswoman access to information regarding police treatment, although the Ombudsperson is entitled thereto under the Law on Data Protection, the Law on the Ombudsperson and the Law on the National Preventive Mechanism. Despite many reports and accusations, the Ministry of Interior has continued to reject allegations on the use of coercion on several occasions.
Moreover, the Centre for Peace studies and Are You Serious reported that their members regularly experience intimidation and threats which they associate with the fact that they are the only organisations that systematically speak about actions by Croatian police. According to Welcome Initiative, volunteers from No Name Kitchen keep being subjected to the criminalisation of their work. This includes deleting unwanted testimonies of applicants. According to a police brief on the criminalization of solidarity which was published by Centre for Peace studies in 2019, several testimonies of local communities who live at the borders with Bosnia and Herzegovina show that the local population is afraid of giving food and water to refugees and migrants because of the police officers who threaten them with disciplinary measures.
At the beginning of the February 2020, the Croatian Parliamentary Domestic Policy and National Security Committee reportedly took the unanimous decision to carry out direct monitoring of police work in the area in which the Committee received complaints regarding the treatment of migrants.
During 2019, a so-called border monitoring project was implemented by UNHCR and the Croatian Law Centre in cooperation with the Ministry of Interior. This Project is financed exclusively by the UNHCR.
In March 2019, all three parties signed a protocol related to the implementation of the project. The border monitoring activities included:
- Access to the official police files of the Ministry responsible for border control and foreigners (police stations, police administrations), in the presence of the officer conducting the proceedings. These files include documents on the procedure conducted with irregular migrants and/or potential applicants for international protection;
- Interviews of applicants for international protection after their accommodation in the reception centres.
Monitoring visits were carried out by Croatian Law Centre’s lawyers and UNHCR staff. The project has not included insight into the actions taken by the Croatian police on the green border, i.e. areas where there are no official border crossing points.
During 2019, the Croatian Law Centre in cooperation with the Ministry of Interior and UNHCR organised and held four workshops for border officials at the Police Academy. A training curriculum was prepared by UNHCR and the Croatian Law Centre (CLC) and presented by representatives of UNHCR, the Ministry of Interior, the CLC as well as CLC’s external associate-law professor. The trainings were funded by UNHCR and addressed following topics: human rights of migrants; access to international protection system in international, European and national legislation; responsibility of police officers; Law on International and Temporary Protection and by-laws-practical instructions; identification of applicants for international protection in need of special procedural and reception guarantees; the state of irregular migration. The lectures were followed by practical workshops in relation to access to international protection, prepared and held by CLC.
Under the Agreement of the Ministry of Interior and within the framework of EMAS funding CLC organized two trainings in April and May 2019 for 21 border police officers. The goal of the trainings was to build capacities of selected police officers, from 4 police administrations (Vukovarsko-Srijemska, Sisačko-Moslavačka, Karlovacka, and Licko-Senjska), in the field of asylum and to teach them basic knowledge on the principles of adult learning, interactive teaching methods and basic principles on how to gain participant's attention and sustainability of their involvement. Also, the CLC prepared a manual on “The right on the access to the asylum system and protection of the fundamental human rights of migrants“, which has been foreseen to be used as a learning and training tool for police officers.
The Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) further provided training to Croatian border guards as part of its cooperation with the Croatian Presidency of the EU Council. The training focused on the Schengen Borders Code, fundamental rights and access to international protection. The training aimed at exploring the borders code, the 1951 Geneva Convention and other instruments of international human rights law, as well as the EU asylum law. It also highlighted the fundamental rights safeguards built into the Schengen Borders Code. The training took place in Zagreb at the General Police Directorate on 25 February 2020.
 Save the children, Reports about push backs and violence against children on the move at the western Balkan borders: January – June 2019, 14 August 2019, available at: https://bit.ly/2vWBSse; Save the children, Reports about push backs and violence against children on the move at the western Balkan borders: July – September 2019, 11 December 2019, available at: https://bit.ly/39m1QTu.
 Centre for Peace Studies, Are You Syrious and Welcome Initiative, 5th report on the violent and illegal push backs practices carried out by the Republic of Croatia, 3 April 2019, available at: https://bit.ly/33Pq2wp.
 Index.HR, ‘Letter from mountaineers: "Specialists beat migrants and shoot them over the heads”’, 19 June 2019, available in Croatian at: https://bit.ly/2WOSs8i; Halter, ‘On the side of the beast”, 18 June 2019, available in Croatian at: https://bit.ly/2QOiAMC.
 OHCHR, End of visit statement of the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, Felipe González Morales, 1 October 2019, available at: https://bit.ly/2Ulwubh; Index.HR, ‘UN rapporteur criticizes Croatian police, says they abuse migrants’, 1 October 2019, available at: https://bit.ly/2Jkeqbq.
 Croatian Ombudswoman, ‘Ombudsman warns the Ministry of Interior to provide NPM representatives with access to information on treatment of irregular migrants’, 4 July 2019, available at: https://bit.ly/3aiNswF.
 Croatian Ombudswoman, ‘Institutions without reaction to an anonymous complaint by a police officer about unlawful acts’, 16 July 2019, available in Croatian at: https://bit.ly/2UIFwhJ; Croatian Ombudswoman, ‘No institutional reaction to alleged illegal police treatment of migrants’, 25 July 2019, available at: https://bit.ly/2UIFOFl.
 Border Violence Monitoring Network, Illegal push-backs and border violence reports – Balkan region, April 2019, available at: https://bit.ly/2wuXvQJ; H-alter, ‘Migrant Torture Garage’, 15 May 2019, available in Croatian at: https://bit.ly/3dxTqfc; H-alter, ‘Migrante se kuje dok je vruće’, 24 September 2019, available in Croatian at: https://bit.ly/3aqXY4U; H-alter, ‘Torture garage for migrants’, 16 October 2019, available at: https://bit.ly/39mjc2A.
 Telegram Croatia, ‘Another policeman comes forward claiming that Croatian police illegally return migrants to Bosnia and Herzegovina at the behest of chiefs’, 21 October 2019, available in Croatian at: https://bit.ly/2UlT9UR.
 Telegram Croatia, ‘If we really came to the conclusion that the Croatian police were deporting foreign students, what's next?’, 4 December 2019, available in Croatian at: https://bit.ly/2JloYa5; NT Portal,’Ostojic Asks for Clarification About Two Nigerian Students, 'Shame' Case for Opposition’, 4 December 2019, available in Croatian at: https://bit.ly/2QPkdKm.
 Ms.Grabar Kitarović was the Croatian president at that time.
 SRF, ‘Kroatiens Präsidentin Grabar-Kitarović zur Balkanroute’, 9 July 2019, available in German at: https://bit.ly/2UmzXqh; The Guardian, ‘Croatian police use violence to push back migrants, president admits’, 16 July 2019, available at: https://bit.ly/2WNLxfO; Index.HR, ‘In a shocking interview, Kolinda acknowledged that Croatian police were breaking the law’, 10 July 2019, available at: https://bit.ly/2QOHdJ7.
Jutarnji, ‘Swiss journalist interviewing Grabar-Kitarovic: 'We checked the translation three times, she really said it, everything is transparent', 18 July 2019, available in Croatian at: https://bit.ly/2Upftxc; NT.HR, ‘Our police force migrants: World media write about President Kolinda's 'shocking' and 'scandalous' confession’, 16 July 2019, available in Croatian at: https://bit.ly/2WQO60r; Telegram Croatia, ‘Again, the president reluctantly attacks the media for misrepresenting her; it did not defend the violence against migrants, translation is poor’, 16 July 2019, available in Croatian at: https://bit.ly/3bn1spk.
 ECRE, ‘Report on Illegal Pushback and Border Violence’, 30 August 2019, available at: https://bit.ly/3dy9Q7q; CMS, ‘Swiss court suspends refugee return for threatening to repeat pushback’, 23 August 2019, available in Croatian at: https://bit.ly/2Jn4mOE.
 Jutarnji, ‘Incident in mountain Qotar: Migrant injured during police intervention, transported to hospital in Rijeka’, 16 November 2019, available in Croatian at: https://bit.ly/2UrKMXW; Jutarnji, ‘Migrant harmfully injured in mountain: ‘Probably the use of a firearm'’, 17 November 2019, available in Croatian at: https://bit.ly/2UPTdLR; Jutarnji, ‘Wounded migrant is stable, but still in vital danger. Police release new details on shooting in Gorski kotar’, 18 November 2019, available in Croatian at: https://bit.ly/2WVLFdg.
 N1, ‘Illegal migrant shot and wounded while resisting arrest in Croatia, police says’, 28 November 2019, available at: https://bit.ly/2JqV04A; Tportal, ‘New incident with migrants; near Mrkoplje, a police officer shot a man with a gun’, 28 November 2019, available in Croatian at: https://bit.ly/2JCh5NX; Index, ‘Policeman shoots migrant near Fuzin’, 28 November 2019, available in Croatian at: https://bit.ly/2ykyS9T; N1, ‘Policeman shoots migrant: "Resistant to resistance"’, 28 November 2019, available in Croatian at: https://bit.ly/3dBREd7.
 Telegram, ‘Minister of Security of Bosnia and Herzegovina: 'Croatian police beat migrants, rob them and then enter the armed forces on our territory. We have evidence ', 1 August 2019, available in Croatian at: https://bit.ly/2WW03Sr.
 Jutarnji, ‘We have numerous and reliable evidence: Bosnia and Herzegovina claims that Croatian police illegally return illegal migrants’, 10 September 2019, available in Croatian at: https://bit.ly/2w2O6Q4.
 Ombudsman, ‘Ombudsman warns Ministry of Interior to provide NPM representatives with access to data on treatment of irregular migrants’, 4 July 2019, available in Croatian at: https://bit.ly/340a9Ua.
 Information provided by Welcome Initiative on 16 February 2019.
 The project is entitled “Monitoring the conduct of police officers of the Ministry of the Interior in the field of illegal migration and asylum in 2019”, and is financed by UNHCR.