According to the LITP, vulnerable groups include persons without legal capacity, children, unaccompanied children, elderly and infirm persons, seriously ill persons, disabled persons, pregnant women, single parents with minor children, persons with mental disorders and victims of trafficking, as well as victims of torture, rape or other forms of psychological, physical and sexual violence, such as victims of female genital mutilation.
Screening of vulnerability
The LITP has introduced special procedural and reception guarantees. It specifies that appropriate support must be provided to applicants in relation to their personal circumstances, amongst other things their age, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, serious illness, mental health, or as a consequence of torture, rape or other serious forms of psychological, physical or sexual violence, for the purpose of exercising the rights and obligations from the LITP. The procedure of recognising the personal circumstances of applicants shall be conducted continuously by specially trained police officers, employees of the Ministry of Interior and other competent bodies, from the moment of the expression of intention to apply for international protection until the delivery of the decision on the application.
At the moment, there is no further detailed guidance available in the law, nor an early identification mechanism in the form of internal guidance.
Early identification is conducted in accordance with the Article 15 LITP at the moment of the expression of intention to apply for international protection by the police officers. Police then accordingly inform the Reception Centre for Applicants for International Protection and further identification during the procedure for international protection is done by social workers of the Reception Centre as well as employees of NGOs with which the Ministry has cooperation agreements and who come into first contact with applicants when they arrive in the centres. Less evident vulnerabilities such as those relating to victims of torture or trauma, victims of trafficking or LGBTI persons are much less likely to be identified in current practice. The Rehabilitation Centre for Stress and Trauma (RCT) reported that there was still no appropriate mechanism for the identification of torture victims and persons with mental health disabilities, so consequently, applicants for international protection who are victims of torture or have some mental health problems are not provided with the necessary treatment and access to appropriate medical and psychological rehabilitation and care. RCT also reported that specific needs and rights of victims of torture are not recognised within the health and social care system. However in April 2021, a Standard Operational Procedure in Cases of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence in the Reception Centres for Applicants of International Protection entered into force. The latter was developed in cooperation with the Ministry of Interior, UNHCR, IOM, MDM-BELGIQUE, the Croatian Red Cross and the Croatian Law Centre.
The Croatian Red Cross (CRC) provides psychosocial and practical support and assistance to applicants for international protection in Reception Centres for Applicants for International Protection, based on the identified needs of individuals and families. CRC identifies vulnerable groups (children, unaccompanied children, the elderly, single women, people with physical and mental disabilities, people who have experienced trauma or torture, potential victims of trafficking, victims of domestic violence) and plans work tailored to their specific needs.
The Government adopted a Protocol on the treatment of unaccompanied children on 30 August 2018. The protocol aims to improve the position of unaccompanied children, provides a detailed overview of all procedures and provides guidance for all relevant actors coming in contact and working with this category of children. The Protocol elaborates in 14 chapters on the various issues in regard to unaccompanied children. According to the Ministry of Interior, an Interdepartmental Commission for the protection of unaccompanied children has been established. The Commission was established with the aim to improve inter-agency cooperation between state administration bodies and other stakeholders involved in the protection of unaccompanied children. The Commission is composed of representatives of the the Ministry of Labour, Pension System, Family and Social Policy , the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Science and Education, the Ministry of Health, the Office for Human Rights and Rights of National Minorities and international organisations dealing with the protection of the rights of the child or refugee rights and, civil society organisations dealing with the protection of children’s rights.
On 1 January 2019 the new Law on Foster Care entered into force, which provides for the possibility of unaccompanied children staying in a foster family. According to the Ombudsperson for Children, this possibility was not used in 2020, while in 2021, 3 unaccompanied children were placed in foster families.  However, it should be noted that the Ministry of Labour, Pension System, Family and Social Policy prepared, in cooperation with other ministries and agencies, guidelines on the protection of unaccompanied migrant and asylum-seeking children in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, to fully uphold their best interests.
In May 2019, the coordinating body of the Interdepartmental Commission for unaccompanied minors held a meeting that was attended by representatives of the competent central authorities of the State administration and other stakeholders involved in the protection of unaccompanied children. UNICEF reported that they participated in the work of Commission which met twice during 2019, however without significant and concrete results. In 2020, the Commission met once to discuss the relocation of children from Greece and to plan future activities relating to the protection of unaccompanied children. However, that did not result in a significant change in the quality of protection unaccompanied children or in productive proposals for improving the position of unaccompanied children in Croatia. Also, experts from institutions where unaccompanied children are accommodated do not participate in the work of the Commission and they are mostly acquainted with the problems of these children. The cooperation of the Commission and institutions is only triggered in crisis situations when there is a lack of capacity so it is necessary to find additional accommodation for unaccompanied children. According to the Ombudsperson for Children, the Commission for unaccompanied minors did not meet in 2021. A new commission was established by a decision of the Government of the Republic of Croatia on 5 January 2022.
The Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Labour, Pension System, Family and Social Policy issued Instruction on the Treatment of Unaccompanied Children, which was disseminated to the MoI Border Directorate, police administrations and stations and centres for social welfare.
In 2020, the Croatian Law Centre prepared an update of the paper dealing with different aspects of treatment of unaccompanied children. Beside the legislative and institutional framework, the paper discusses the treatment of unaccompanied children after they are found on the territory of the Republic of Croatia. Part of the paper is devoted to questions that arise when an unaccompanied child is an applicant for international protection, i.e. issues that arise in the procedure for granting international protection. The paper further presents the challenges in working with unaccompanied children as noticed by the Croatian Law Centre in their practice.
In 2021, Centre for Peace Studies, Rehabilitation Centre for Stress and Trauma, together with an independent expert prepared a Policy brief on the protection of unaccompanied children in the Republic of Croatia. Based on the analysis of the current situation, the following recommendations for improvement of the system of protection of unaccompanied children were given: to develop a new National Strategy for the Rights of the Child, to develop a Plan for capacity building of alternative care for unaccompanied children, to establish uniform records and consistent and systematic collection and recording of data on unaccompanied children in the Republic of Croatia, to encourage and support advocacy activities of CSOs and the entire professional community, aimed at raising public awareness on the needs of unaccompanied children and improving cultural competencies and sensitivity of the professional and general community and to develop a new Migration Policy.
In June 2021, the Croatian Law Centre signed a cooperation agreement with the European Federation for Missing and Sexually Exploited Children (Missing Children Europe) related to the project on so-called Miniila application. The purpose of this application is to inform children in simplified language adapted to them about their rights and explain to them the procedures such as the procedure for granting international protection and family reunification, and also give them an overview of the organisations in the country, which they can contact for information and services they need (e.g. information on the asylum system, support in cases of trafficking and sexual violence, language learning etc.). The application is available in five languages Farsi, English, Arabic, French and Tigrinya).
The number of unaccompanied children applicants for international protection increased from 186 UASC in 2020 to 195 in 2021.
According to the Ministry of Labour, Pension System, Family and Social Policy, unaccompanied children continue to experience difficulties in accessing education, as well as local communities’ resistance to their integration, and can only stay briefly in social welfare institutions. Further difficulties concern a lack of interpreters, a lack of interdepartmental cooperation and insufficient cooperation of special guardians with accommodation facilities for unaccompanied children.
During 2021, the Office of the Ombudsperson for Children continued to receive information on cases of authorities separating migrant and asylum-seeking children from their families for months. The media also reported two cases of parent–child separation by Croatian border guards at the external borders, with no information about the whereabouts of the parent(s). The Jesuit Refugee Service reported an increasing number of families who are separated at the border when mothers and children are allowed to apply for asylum while fathers are pushed back to Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The Croatian Red Cross provided support to employees working in social welfare institutions where unaccompanied children are accommodated and to special guardians. In addition, CRC developed 64 individual assistance plans and their mobile team conducted 26 visits to institutions where unaccompanied children are accommodated.
Victims of sexual and gender-based violence
Between October 2018 and March 2020, IOM implemented the project ”PROTECT – Preventing SGBV against migrants and strengthening support to victims”. The project ended at the end of March 2020 and aimed at strengthening the capacity and coordination of existing national support services for sexual and gender based violence. It also aimed to facilitate the access to these services for refugees, migrants and applicants for international protection that are victims and potential victims of SGBV. The project also aimed to raise awareness and empower these communities. During the course of the project IOM Croatia organised sixteen capacity building trainings on SGBV and migration for first responders (i.e. border police, employees of the Ministry of the Interior and NGOs working in the Reception Centre), specialised service providers (i.e. social workers, psychologists, social pedagogues working in the Centres for Social Welfare, Home for Children, NGOs working with the victims of SGBV) and general service providers (i.e. teachers and other school and kindergarten employees, interpreters, various NGOs working with migrants) and reached 216 people. The trainings addressed sexual and gender-based violence in general, its context during migration and impact on the individual/migrant, intercultural difference, while the aim was to strengthen the capacity of the participants to provide the appropriate support and to guide survivors whilst taking care of themselves.
The PROTECT project developed country-specific information material on sexual and gender-based violence tailored to adults and children needs. These include:
1) a two-minute animated film which explains SGBV, designed for migrant audiences, and with subtitles available in Croatian and other languages (English, Arabic, Farsi, Pashto, Urdu, French, Russian, Italian, Somali, Albanian, Bulgarian, Spanish, Ukrainian, Tigrinya, Turkish, Kurdish (Kurmanji);
2) The tailored material presents the services locally available i.e. the leaflet for adults on sexual and gender-based violence in English Arabic, Pashto, and Farsiand the one for children is also available in English, Arabbic, Pashto and Farsi ,
Moreover, in 2020, as part of the project implemented by MDM-Belgique entitled: “Empowering Women and Children in the migrant population to take ACTion against sexual and gender-based violence (We ACT)”, guidelines for dealing with cases of sexual violence against women and children was prepared by the MDM-Belgique Team. The content of guidelines was incorporated in the Standard Operational Procedure in Cases of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence in the Reception Centres for Applicants of International Protection”. The Standard Operational Procedure was developed in cooperation with the Ministry of Interior, UNHCR, IOM, MDM-BELGIQUE, the Croatian Red Cross and the Croatian Law Centre.It entered into force in April 2021.
Victims of trauma and mental health issues
In 2019, Médecins du Monde (MDM-Belgique) published a study on the mental health of applicants for international protection in Croatia. The aim of this study was to examine the level of psychological distress, anxiety, depression and post-traumatic symptoms on the sample of applicants accommodated at the Reception Centre for Applicants for international protection in Zagreb. A further aim of the study was to examine the possible differences in the domain of psychological distress, anxiety, depression, post-traumatic symptoms and subjectively assessed quality of life between the population of applicants who arrived in Republic of Croatia under the Dublin III Regulation and of those who arrived to Croatia through non-EU countries (mostly Bosnia and Herzegovina or Serbia). An additional goal was to examine the possibility of predicting the level of applicants’ psychological distress based on their satisfaction with various aspects of their lives. The analysis of the results showed that 57.83% of participants scored above the cut-off result on the anxiety scale; 67.47% of participants scored above the cut-off result on the scale of depression; while 65.06% of the participants scored above the cut-off result on the scale of overall psychological distress Similarly, 50.61% of participants scored above the cut-off result on the scale of post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms. Applicants who have been returned to Croatia under the Dublin Regulation have shown more pronounced depressive symptoms and subjectively assessed the lower quality of life as well as lower levels of satisfaction with their own sense of safety in the future.
In 2020, MdM published the report „Everyone has the right to healthcare – model of healthcare mediation/support intended for asylum seekers in Croatia”. The report presented the healthcare mediation/support model for applicants for international protection in Croatia which was initiated and set up in 2016 by the organisation Médecins du Monde ASBL – Dokters van de Wereld VZW (MDM-Belgique) in partnership with the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of the Interior of the Republic of Croatia. The report describes the different components of this model as well as its results in terms of improved access to healthcare for applicants in Croatia, but also different challenges tackled between 1 November 2018 and 31 July 2020.
The report stresses that “migration routes have changed since mid-2018, showing high migration influx coming from Bosnia and Herzegovina and a particularly high transit dimension in the asylum seekers’ flow in the country was observed. Among newly arrived persons, a significant raise of the proportion of women, children, and families, patients with chronic diseases or severe illnesses and persons with disabilities has been observed. The situation imposed heavy workload on MdM-BELGIQUE’s team, since the organisation is responsible for initial medical examination of newly arrived persons, as well as distribution of prescribed medication, organisation of transport and transport for referrals, etc. Regarding these changes, the transit dimension of asylum seekers’ flow for the last year and half posed additional challenges, and so did the observed physical and psychological exhaustion of applicants for international protection, who arrived from poor living conditions of temporary reception camps in Bosnia and Herzegovina”.
The report further emphasised that the COVID-19 crisis posed new challenge for MdM team, which required flexibility and adjustment of the living and working conditions according to the recommended preventive epidemiological measures. The report also underlines that long-term exposure of MdM staff to a significantly increased workload in the facility that is not adequately equipped and does not have enough staff to organise an effective quarantine area causes high levels of stress and a sense of disproportionate responsibility among their employees. The same challenges were reported by MdM team in relation to 2021. MdM further reported that, in 2021, interdisciplinary cooperation in the organisation of preventive and treatment interventions related to the mental health of applicants for international protection had been improved. In addition, applicants were referred to the appropriate hospitals accompanied by MdM staff and interpreters when necessary.
In 2021, the Rehabilitation Centre for Stress and Trauma (RCT) reported that the identification of vulnerable applicants, including victims of torture, is not implemented in accordance with established standards. Consequently, applicants for international protection who are victims of torture are not provided with the necessary treatment and access to appropriate medical and psychological rehabilitation and care. In addition, according to RCT, the health and social care system does not address the rights and needs of victims of torture as a vulnerable group.
Age assessment of unaccompanied children
The LITP foresees the possibility of an age assessment procedure if, during the procedure for international protection, doubt arises regarding the age of an unaccompanied child. The assessment of the child’s age shall be conducted on the basis of the information available on the child, including the expert opinions of persons involved in work with the child. If the information available is insufficient, a medical examination shall be conducted, with the prior written consent of the child and the guardian. The medical examination shall be conducted by means of a physical examination, X-ray of the teeth and/or hands, with full respect for the dignity of the unaccompanied child. An unaccompanied child shall be informed in writing in a language which he or she may justifiably be presumed to understand and in which he or she is able to communicate about the manner of examination and its possible consequences for his or her health, the consequences of the results of the medical examination for his or her application, as well as the consequences of unjustified refusal. In the case of unjustified refusal of consent, the unaccompanied child shall be deemed to be an adult applicant. The application cannot be refused exclusively on the basis of the fact that consent to perform a medical examination was not given. During the medical examination, an unaccompanied child who does not understand Croatian shall be provided with a translator/interpreter for a language which he or she may justifiably be presumed to understand and in which he or she is able to communicate. The costs of the medical examination shall be borne by the Ministry. If, even following the results and report on the medical examination undertaken, there is still doubt regarding the age of the minor, the concept of benefit of the doubt shall be applied.
In relation to appeal to the age assessment outcome, the Ministry stressed that in case of doubt in the opinion of the doctor, new medical check would be initiated. The Ministry also emphasises that in such case, the concept of benefit of the doubt shall be applied.
According to the Ministry of Interior, in 2017 and 2018, the age assessment procedure was not conducted. No information is available for the period from 2019 until the end of 2021.
 Article 4(1)(14) LITP.
 Article 15 LITP.
 ECRE, Balkan route reversed, December 2016, 26.
 Ibid, 24.
 Information provided by Rehabilitation Centre for Stress and Trauma, 14 January 2022.
 Official Gazette 115/18
 It is not clear whether they were applicants for international protection. Ombudsperson for Children: Report on the work of the Ombudsman for Children in 2021, available in Croatian: https://bit.ly/3jonKNp.
 Information provided by UNICEF, 8 January 2020.
 Government of the Republic of Croatia, Decision on the establishment of the Interdepartmental Commission for the Protection of Unaccompanied Children, available in Croatian at: https://bit.ly/3JuF1Pu.
 Information provided by MdM, 17 January 2021.
 Information provided by MDM-BELGIQUE, 19 January 2022.
 Information provided by the Rehabilitation Centre for Stress and Trauma, 14 January 2022.
 Article 18 LITP.
 Information provided by the Ministry of Interior, 2 March 2017.
 Information provided by the Ministry of Interior, 13 February 2018, 28 January 2019.