In 2020, besides the spread of COVID-19, the main challenge continued to be a strict border regime that limits access to the territory and to the procedure for international protection in Croatia, raising serious concerns for the protection of human rights of applicants for international protection.
Illegal border practices, push-backs and ill-treatment
According to the Ministry of the Interior, there were 29,094 illegal border crossings in 2020, thus marking an increase of 43.5% compared to 2019 when 20,278 illegal border crossing cases were recorded. The main countries of origin of persons apprehended while illegally crossing the border were Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Morocco. The share of citizens of Morocco, Bangladesh and Afghanistan in irregular migration has increased significantly compared to 2019, while the number of Turkish citizens dropped. Out of the total number of irregular migrations, more than 90% refer to young and middle-aged men.
|Illegal crossing of the border (persons)||Location of interception|
|Nationalities||2019||2020||Trend in %||Border crossing point||Near the border||Deep into the territory||Accepted by the police of another state|
|Bosnia and Herzegovina||90||100||+11.1||16||27||44||13|
Source: Ministry of Interior, Statistical overview of basic safety indicators and work results in 2020, available at: https://bit.ly/3uUnuKh, 159.
The section below provides an overview of reports and sources of border practices carried out by national authorities in 2020 based on information provided by testimonies, NGOs, human rights bodies, UN bodies, media and other relevant actors in the asylum field. They confirm that over 18,400 persons have been refused access to the territory, while some of them were also denied access to the asylum procedure, including vulnerable groups such as children. This refers to 16,425 push backs from Croatia to Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) according to DRC, and 1,975 push backs from Croatia to Serbia according to UNHCR Serbia.  These incidents also raise serious concerns over the level of violence and the use of force by national law enforcement authorities.
Push-back practices reported by national and European NGOs and other actors
Pushback practices persisted throughout 2020 as reported by many organisations such as Amnesty International, the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), the Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN), Are You Serious? (AYS), Welcome! Initiative’, and the Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Research. The Centre for Peace Studies (CPS) also reported pushback practices of children.
The Centre for Peace Studies (CPS) reported that push backs practices and denying access to asylum as well as actions of the Croatian police at the borders continued to be the most problematic aspect in relation to access to asylum system in 2020. According to CPS illegal deportations continued and increased in violence. The Border Violence Monitoring Network, of which CPS is a member, recorded 110 testimonies of pushbacks affecting 1,656 persons in 2020. In 58.59% of these cases, persons expressed the intention to seek asylum in Croatia, and in 39% cases persons were under the age of 18. In almost 90% of cases some form of torture or degrading treatment was recorded.
According to Are You Syrious? (AYS), before being pushed back, victims were often taken to police stations or were held in informal detention facilities. Of particular concern is the fact that, according to migrants’ testimonies, some people have been returned from Croatia to places near minefields. AYS reported that during 2020, the methods of violent and degrading treatment at the Croatian borders intensified compared to previous years and now cover almost 90% of all reported cases. Police dogs’ attacks on 136 individual victims were also recorded in 2020, while 31% of victims reported that Croatian border guards threatened them with firearms or even shot at them. In almost 30% of cases recorded by the Border Violence Monitoring Network (co-founded also by AYS), chained push back occurred from Italy or Austria, via Slovenia, and then from Croatia. According to AYS, this procedure usually begins with return based on bilateral readmission agreements between Slovenia and neighbouring countries. More information on these bilateral agreements and return procedures can be found in the AIDA report on Slovenia. The latter report indicates that a total of 9,950 persons were returned to Croatia from Slovenia based on a readmission agreement. After handing migrants over to the Croatian authorities, according to AYS, they were placed in police vans and expelled from Croatian territory without any regular procedure, far from the official border crossings at the so-called green border. 58% of victims reported that they had tried unsuccessfully to seek asylum in Croatia, and some added that they had been told that there was no asylum in Croatia.
During 2020, the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) was present in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). DRC Outreach Protection Teams monitored pushbacks from Croatia to BiH and documented pushbacks and human rights violations at the Croatia-BiH border. DRC reported that 16,425 people were pushed back from Croatia to BiH in the course of 2020. Pushbacks were recorded irrespectively of people’s age, gender or country of origin. A certain number of those who were push backed reported that access to the procedure for international protection was denied to them after explicitly requesting it to Croatian police. Some reported to DRC that they were silenced, laughed at or beaten when requesting asylum. Some of the interviewees reported being pushed back to BiH, despite never having passed through the country to enter Croatia. Push backs and human rights violations were reported not only by men but also by families with children, single women, and UASC. DRC interviewed family members reporting that part of their family (most commonly children, sometimes accompanied by a female family member) were separated as a direct or indirect consequence of pushbacks. Theft and destruction of property, physical violence, and degrading treatment by Croatian officials were also reported to DRC. Persons reported having their possessions (mobile phones, power banks, clothes, footwear, etc.) confiscated and/or destroyed (set on fire) their personal documents (including passports) taken away from them and/or burnt.
Abusive and degrading treatment that was reported to DRC, has included the following:
- being stripped of all clothes while being searched by the police,
- placing men, women and children in confined spaces, such as closed rooms or vehicles,
- confining people in cold spaces,
- not providing water or denying access to toilets,
- violently driving police vans with persons inside,
- being collectively stripped of clothes,
- driven to the border while locked up with dogs,
- forced to walk across the river,
- forced to run a “gauntlet” of police officers with batons,
- firing of shots in the air,
- being required to lie on the ground or kneel for an hour or more,
- intimidation with dogs or dog attacks ,
- taking away people’s shoes or shoelaces,
- use of pepper spray or electro-shockers,
- beatings with batons, wooden sticks and metal shafts,
- kicking and punching.
DCR further reported that between 12 and 16 October 2020, medical doctors working in BiH in the Emergency room of the primary healthcare centre in Velika Kladusa and medical doctors working in the Reception centre Miral, infirmary run by DRC reported 52 cases treated for injuries and trauma associated with the reported events. In all of the cases recorded by the medical teams, Croatian police were reported as being the perpetrators by the patients. The average age of the patients examined was 25, while four of the patients were minors. All of the observed cases showed visible signs and clear patterns of violence applied, namely:
- 71% had contusions (bruises consistent with blunt force trauma);
- 19% had hematomas;
- 15% had wounds;
- Almost 10% (five patients) had fractures 31 patients (60%) had more than one injury on different parts of the body, out of which 18 (35% of total) had multiple injuries (on three or more different parts of the body);
- 67% of the observed cases had injuries on the back side of the body;
- 52% (27) had injuries on the back, out of which 60% in the upper part of the back;
- 44% (23) had injuries on the upper extremities (seven of them on both sides;
- 40% (21) had injuries on the lower extremities (four of them on both sides);
- 27% (14) had injuries of the head and neck;
- 17% (9) had injuries of the gluteal area;
- 11% (6) had injuries of the chest wall.
- One recorded case had clear physical signs of rape with a foreign object.
All of the cases observed needed to come back for follow up appointment.
On 18 December 2020, on the occasion of the International Migrants Day, the Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN) released its ‘Black Book of Pushbacks’ which presents detailed evidence on these violations and documents the violence at the EU’s external borders.
As already mentioned above, it is important to note that pushback practices also affected vulnerable groups such as children. The Centre for Peace Studies, together with Border Violence Monitoring Network, Society for Psychological Assistance and Welcome Initiative published a „Pushback report on children and unaccompanied children in Croatia“ in 2020. The report contains testimonies of children and their families as well as of unaccompanied children on violent and illegal methods that prevented their access to the international protection procedure .In a similar vein, the Ombudsman for Children also reported on pushbacks of children in 2020. Médecins du Monde-Belgium further noted cases of separation of families at the borders – with mothers and children being sent to reception centres, while fathers were returned to Bosnia. 
During the year 2020, reports on deaths of migrants were also reported as dead bodies were found floating in the Mrežnica River, and the Korana River, near Karlovac. As reported in July 2020 by Initiative welcome, nine migrants were buried in the cemetery near the town of Karlovac in 2020 according to media reports.
Push-back practices reported by the media
Several media outlets have also reported on illegal border practices occurring in 2020. In May 2020, the Guardian reported that Croatian police allegedly spray-painted the heads of persons with crosses when they attempt to cross the border from Bosnia. The Ministry of Interior denied these accusations. 
In July 2020, the Bosnian Border Police officers returned to Croatia migrants that were previously “transferred” to BiH territory by the Croatian police. During the year, Bosnian media reported on the violent treatment of migrants by the Croatian police.
In October 2020, a new article of the Guardian was published specifying that the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) has documented a series of brutal pushbacks at the Bosnia-Croatian border. The Guardian has obtained photographs and medical reports that support the accounts, described by aid workers as “sickening” and “shocking”.“The testimonies collected from victims of pushbacks are horrifying,’’ said Charlotte Slente, DRC secretary general. “More than 75 persons in one week have all independently reported inhumane treatment, savage beatings and even sexual abuse’’. Nevertheless, the Croatian Ministry of interior rejected the allegations again.
In November 2020, Der Spiegel published an article and videos demonstrating that the Croatian police expelled migrants from Croatian territory. Similarly, a video published on the website of the Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Research shows approximately hundred people, including a significant number of children, who unsuccessfully sought protection and assistance from the Croatian police at the Bosanska Bojna / Veliki Obljaj border crossing in December 2020.
Reactions from UN bodies and European human rights bodies
This situation has drawn attention from UN bodies as well as the Council of Europe. In June 2020, Felipe González Morales, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, and Nils Melzer, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, issued a joint statement stressing that Croatia must immediately investigate reports of excessive use of force by law enforcement personnel against migrants, including acts amounting to torture and ill-treatment, and sanction those responsible. UNHCR Serbia reported on pushback practices from Croatia to Serbia as well, referring to a total of 1,975 persons pushed back from Croatia to Serbia. Additional information on pushbacks from Croatia to Serbia can be found in the 2020 AIDA report on Serbia.
In August 2020, the Council of Europe Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) completed a five-day rapid reaction visit to Croatia to examine the treatment of persons attempting to enter the country and apprehended by the police. The delegation visited several temporary reception centres and informal migrant settlements in north-west Bosnia and Herzegovina where it interviewed and medically examined many migrants who claimed they were apprehended by Croatian law enforcement officials within the territory of Croatia and forcibly returned to Bosnia and Herzegovina. In Croatia, beside the Reception Centre for Foreigners in Ježevo, the delegation visited the Cetingrad Border Police Station, the Donji Lapac Border Police Station, the Korenica Border Police Station, the Intervention Police Unit of the Karlovac Police Administration (Mali Erjavec). The preliminary observations of the delegation were presented to the Croatian authorities at the end of the visit. According to the Croatian Ombudsperson, the report on the CPT visit was adopted in November and the CoE Commissioner for Human Rights urged to Croatia to publish it, as it is common practice for CPT reports to be made public, with exceptions being very rare. As of the end of April 2021, the report was still not available.
In August 2020, Amnesty International prepared its submission for the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Croatia in November 2020. It evaluated the implementation of recommendations made to Croatia in its previous UPR, including in relation to serious concerns about pushbacks and collective expulsions of refugees and migrants attempting to enter the country and in particular the allegations of violence perpetrated by the Croatian police. As reported by Initiative Welcome, in November 2020 during the sessions on the third cycle of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), several UN member states made recommendations to Croatia regarding investigations into the use of excessive force against refugees and migrants. They recommended inter alia to stop illegal deportations, to improve border management in line with international human rights standards, and to combat discrimination against refugees and other migrants.  The UN Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review specifies that Croatia will examine recommendations in due time, but no later than the forty-sixth session of the Human Rights Council: 
In October 2020, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, called on Croatia’s authorities to stop violence against migrants at its border with Bosnia and Herzegovina and to start investigations against the police officers responsible for inhumane treatment of irregular migrants.
In November 2020, the Slovenian Asylum Work Group and the Counselling Office of Workers submited information under Article 20(1) of the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and invited the Committee against Torture to open an inquiry into Slovenia’s practice of push-backs of migrants and refugees to Croatia, a practice that results in illegal chain returns to Bosnia and Herzegovina and the systematic torture of returned migrants and refugees. Furthermore, also in November, the director of the EU Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) visited Croatia to get a better understanding about the allegations of fundamental rights violations at the external EU border.
Litigation on pushback practices and relevant complaints
Important litigation and relevant developments in relation to illegal border practices were reported in 2020. In March 2020, the ECtHR asked the Croatian government a series of questions about its push-back practices, on the grounds of individual complaints against Croatia, which the Syrians SB, AA and AB filed with the assistance of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) and PRO ASYL in April 2019. This is the first time that the Croatian government must answer in court for its practice of pushing back refugees and migrants to Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). On 25 May 2020, the ECtHR published a communication on the individual complaints brought by three Syrian refugees. The applicants – one of whom was an unaccompanied minor at the time – were denied an individual assessment of their case as they were summarily and collectively expelled from Croatia to BH in October 2018.
The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights intervened as a third-party in the case S.B and others v Croatia.The Commissioner emphasised that available information points to the existence of an established practice of collective returns of migrants from Croatia to Bosnia and Herzegovina, which are carried out outside of any formal procedure and without assessing their individual situation. The Commissioner also indicates that the practice is preventing individuals from properly exercising their right to seek international protection. Based on her own observations and numerous reports, the Commissioner also highlights widespread ill-treatment of migrants by Croatian law enforcement officers who continue to enjoy impunity, in the context of collective returns. Another intervention in the case SB v Croatia was submitted by the AIRE Centre, ECRE, the Dutch Council on Refugees, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee and the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ).
In addition, the Syrian applicant, supported by ECCHR and PRO ASYL submitted a complaint to the UN Human Rights Committee (HRC) urging it to examine Croatia’s practice of expulsions. This is the first time a complaint on push-backs was submitted to HRC. The case was registered and communicated to Croatia on 11 December 2020. The case involves 21-year-old Syrian applicant who left BiH in 2018. He crossed the Croatian border and was subject to six push-backs which grew in violence and cruelty over the three-month period. Allegedly, the applicant was also subjected to acts of humiliation and electric shocks which left him unconscious. Requests for asylum or information were roundly dismissed, no identification or individual assessment was undertaken and the groups, a part of which he was, were ordered to cross irregularly back over the border.
During 2020, a certain number of people reported to DCR that were chained pushbacks from Slovenia through Croatia to BiH; from Italy, through Slovenia and Croatia to BiH as well as from Austria, through Slovenia and Croatia to BiH. Similar observations were made in the 2020 AIDA reports on Slovenia and Austria. Information provided by interviewees to DRC indicates that there is a level of communication and coordination between authorities of the different EU Member States, with interviewees reporting being “handed over” by the authorities of one state to another. The reports on chained pushbacks were confirmed by a ruling from the Administrative Court of Rome in Italy, in January 2021 which concluded that an applicant was subject to an illegal chain pushback from Italy, via Slovenia and Croatia, to Bosnia-Herzegovina.  Incidents occurring at the Slovenian border are further documented in the 2020 AIDA report on Slovenia.
In January 2021, the civic initiative Info Kolpa from Slovenia, a member of the Border Violence Monitoring Network, reported that the Administrative Court concluded once again in December 2020 that the Republic of Slovenia violated the applicant’s right to prohibition of collective expulsions, his right to prohibition of torture and his right to access to the asylum procedure, by following the abbreviated procedure on the basis of the Readmission Agreement between the Republic of Slovenia and the Republic of Croatia, through which it handed the applicant over to the Croatian authorities in August 2019. Info Kolpa was assisting the applicant throughout the court proceedings.
In 2020, the Centre for Peace Studies filed four criminal charges in regard to illegal deportations accompanied by alleged torture and inhuman treatment. 
- In June 2020, CPS filed a criminal complaint against unknown police officers on the suspicion of degrading treatment and torture of 33 persons and their push back to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Allegedly, according to their testimonies, all the victims were subject to torture and degrading treatment and their heads were sprayed by the police, amongst other things.
- In July 2020, another complaint was lodged at the State Attorney’s Office in Zagreb against the unknown perpetrators due to the suspicion that they tortured, humiliated and pushed back 16 persons from Croatian territory to Bosnia-Herzegovina at the end of May 2020.
- In December 2020, CPS filled another two criminal charges to the State Attorney’s Office, for two separate cases against unknown perpetrators. The case involves a total of 13 victims, including two children, who were detained and then handed over to ten armed men dressed in black, with phantoms on their heads. The latter humiliated and pushed back the victims to Bosnia and Herzegovina, and one of the victims was raped by one of the perpetrators. The case was also described in an article in Guardian.
The Croatian government has dismissed allegations of violence, but said that following the latest accusations, it would launch an investigation with the goal of removing any doubt about police conduct and punishing any possible misdemeanours.
The Croatian Ombudswoman has initiated investigations into complaints regarding ill-treatment by the police. During 2020, the Ombudsman’s Office opened 39 cases regarding the mistreatment of irregular migrants and applicants for international protection by the Croatian police. For example, two investigation proceedings were initiated in connection with articles published by The Guardian. As a national preventive mechanism, the Ombudsperson was denied access to information, similarly to previous years.
Criticism and accountability
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. There is no further information available, however, as to whether this was implemented in practice.
Are You Syrious? (AYS) reported that human rights defenders engaged in their organisation continued to be put under pressure by national authorities in 2020. One of their volunteer, an asylee from Iraq, who is also a partner of the only full-time employee in AYS, was directly targeted. At the end of 2019, he was offered to become an informant for the Ministry of the Interior / Security and Intelligence Agency, with threats that his status would be revoked if he refuses. Given that he still decided to refuse the offer, his refugee status was revoked in May 2020, with the explanation that he had falsely presented the facts in his case, and was declared a threat to national security. Considering that the volunteer is also a partner of AYS employee, AYS believes that this is a continuation of pressure towards their organisation. AYS also sent letters to the relevant parliamentary committees on the case.
A similar case was reported to Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) as they received a complaint from a beneficiary of international protection who claimed that he was put under pressure by the Security and Intelligence Agency (SIA). 
In previous years, a so-called border monitoring project was implemented by UNHCR and the Croatian Law Centre in cooperation with the Ministry of Interior. The project was financed exclusively by the UNHCR However, the project was not implemented in 2020 and border monitoring activities were not carried out.
Under the Agreement with the Ministry of Interior, CLC organised a 2-days training for border police officers – multipliers in the field of asylum in September 2020. Moreover, the CLC prepared a new updated edition of the 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 updated version includes also an article dealing with the most important case law of the European Court of Human Rights.
In the context of EU funding granted to Croatia for border management operations, Croatia should have set up a ‘monitoring mechanism’ to ensure that border management operations are fully compliant with fundamental rights and EU law. In November 2020, the European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly launched an investigation into the lack of said mechanism. The European Ombudsman has opened an inquiry into a complaint from Amnesty International against the European Commission. The inquiry focuses on how the Commission seeks to ensure that the Croatian authorities respect fundamental rights in the context of border management operations. Amnesty International and other organisations have raised concerns about border management by the Croatian authorities, drawing attention to alleged human rights violations linked to ‘pushbacks’ of migrants and other border operations. The complainant has raised doubts as to whether such a mechanism has been set up, and claims that the European Commission has failed to verify that the Croatian authorities have implemented border monitoring activites or how the allocated funds have been spent. The Ombudsman has set out a series of questions to the Commission and asked for a response by 31 January 2021. The questions seek to establish the nature of the monitoring mechanism and how the Commission has verified it has been set up. If it has been created, the questions seek to establish how the Commission has verified its effectiveness and, more generally, how the Commission ensures that border management operations that receive EU funds ensure respect for fundamental rights. The Croatian Ombudsman’s Office also requested information from the Ministry of Interior on the amount intended for the monitoring mechanism, and on the activities carried out, but no answer was received so far.
In light of the absence of border monitoring activities in Croatia, but also in other countries, ECRE released a statement in cooperation with other NGOs calling for a new monitoring mechanism at European borders which should ensure fundamental rights and accountability.
 Amnesty International, ‘Croatia: Fresh evidence of police abuse and torture of migrants and asylum-seekers’, 11 June 2020, available at: https://bit.ly/3gbIJ5z; Welcome! Initiative: Police shooting and physical marking of refugees marks the week ahead of Victory Day, 8 may 2020, available at: https://bit.ly/32tSUux; Information provided by the Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Research, 11 January 2021.
 Information provided by the Centre for Peace studies, 22 January 2021.
 Information provided by AYS. 2 February 2021.
 AIDA, Country report Slovenia – 2020 Update, April 2021, available at, https://bit.ly/3x5bQxz, p.20. The statistics were made available by the Slovenian police and are available at : https://bit.ly/3tGSw7d.
 Information provided by Initiative Welcome, 4 July 2020.
 The Guardian, Croatian police accused of spray-painting heads of asylum seekers, available at: https://bit.ly/3mMCwP1, May 2020.
 Amnesty International, Croatia: Existing laws are failing victims of domestic violence – Submission for the UN Universal periodic review, 2-13 November 2020, available at: https://bit.ly/3sln1yo.
 Information provided by the Initiative Welcome, 13 November 2020.
 Slovenian Asylum Work Group and the Counselling Office of Workers, Information under Article 20(1) of the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, 29 November 2020, available at: https://bit.ly/3uR8nkb.
 Information provided by the Centre For Peace studies, 22 January 2021.
 Centre for Peace Studies, New criminal charges on Human Rights Day, CPS demands an investigation into the connection between the Ministry of Interior and men in black uniforms with phantoms!, 10 December 2020, available at: https://bit.ly/3glMSEd.
 Information provided by AYS, 2 February 2020.
 Information provided by JRS 12 January 2021.
 CLC, Updated edition of the manual on “The right on the access to the asylum system and protection of the fundamental human rights of migrants”, 2020, available in Croatian at: https://bit.ly/2RMr9Lv.
 European Ombudsman : Ombudsman inquiry opened on how European Commission seeks to ensure protection of fundamental rights in border management operations by Croatian authorities, 10 November 2020, available at: https://bit.ly/3swiQQv.
 ECRE, Amnesty International, Danish Refugee Council (DRC), Human Rights Watch, International Rescue Committee (IRC), Oxfam, Refugee Rights Europe, Save the children, Joint Statement: Turning rhetoric into reality: New monitoring mechanism at European borders should ensure fundamental rights and accountability, 10 November 2020, available at: https://bit.ly/3anLNYK.