Legal representation of unaccompanied children

Croatia

Country Report: Legal representation of unaccompanied children Last updated: 12/01/21

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According to the LITP, “unaccompanied child” means a third-country national or a stateless person younger than eighteen years of age who entered the Republic of Croatia unaccompanied by an adult person responsible for him or her in the sense of parental care, pursuant to the law of the Republic of Croatia, until placed under the care of such a person, and includes all children who are left unaccompanied after they entered the Republic of Croatia.[1]

In 2019, 70 unaccompanied children sought international protection in Croatia.[2] This number should be read with caution, however, as the Ombudsperson for Children confirmed that there are discrepancies between authorities as regards the number of unaccompanied children.[3] According to data from the Ministry of Demography, Family, Youth and Social Policy, the Centers for Social Welfare made decisions on the appointment of special guardians for 281 unaccompanied children in 2019, while the Ministry of Interior's data refers to 70 unaccompanied children who sought international protection. There is thus no accurate data on the number of unaccompanied children available.

 

Time of appointment

 

According to the Protocol on Procedures for Unaccompanied and Separated Children, as soon as it is established that a child is unaccompanied or separated, the police officer must take actions to ensure the procedure of identification, which among others includes obligation to invite a social worker from the Centre for Social Welfare and an interpreter if the child does not understand Croatian, and to forward a letter to the competent Centre for Social Welfare requesting a special guardian to be appointed.

The procedure of identification includes:

  • Communication, introducing oneself and informing the child about the country of arrival, his or her guaranteed rights, the appointment of a special guardian, procedures that follow after the child’s identification;
  • Collecting personal data and other information about the child;
  • Conducting an initial assessment of the child’s needs by completing the form “Initial Assessment of Needs of Unaccompanied and Separated Children” in Annex 1 to the Protocol;
  • Steps to be followed in the event of an expression of intention to submit an application for international protection during the identification procedure.

The procedure of identification is conducted by a police officer in the police administration or police station. An interpreter assigned by the Ministry of Interior, a social worker from the Centre for Social Welfare and/or a special guardian also participate.

Where the procedure of identification is conducted outside the regular working hours of the competent Centre for Social Welfare, the expert duty officer of the Centre for Social Welfare takes part in the procedure. He or she must appoint a special guardian, in an oral ruling, to protect the wellbeing of the child and to ensure the implementation of further procedures. If it is found out that the child already has a guardian, the official from the Centre for Social Welfare or the police officer will call the appointed guardian to take part in further procedures with the unaccompanied or separated child.

During 2019, the Ombudsperson received 10 allegations of violations of the rights of migrant children (including both children with families and unaccompanied children).[4] This includes unlawful individual and collective expulsions at the border with Bosnia and Serbia. The Ombudsperson also expressed concern regarding the allegations of CSOs and international organisations according to which the Croatian police does not always conduct age assessments, as was the case when they found a group of adolescents and younger men who were subsequently pushed back to Bosnia.

According to the LITP, the Centre for Social Welfare shall appoint a guardian, who has been trained to work with children and who does not have a conflict of interest with the child, unaccompanied children who have expressed the intention to apply for international protection.[5] The child must be informed immediately about the appointment of the guardian. The procedure for international protection must be conducted by the official from the Ministry of Interior trained to work with children. The guardian has to prepare, on time, the unaccompanied child for the interview and provide him or her with information on the significance and consequences of the interview in a language which it may justifiably be assumed that child understands and in which he or she is able to communicate. The costs of interpretation shall be borne by the Ministry of Interior. However, to the Croatian Law Centre’s knowledge, this possibility is not used in practice as guardians are not using this legal right.

There is no time limit prescribed by law for the appointment of the representative of an unaccompanied child but it is obvious from the LITP that a guardian has to be appointed before submitting an application for international protection. From the information provided by the Ministry of Interior problems with delays in the appointment of legal guardians in practice also existed in 2018.[6]  The Croatian Law Centre confirmed that this issue persisted in 2019.

 

Qualifications of guardians

 

Until now, no special qualifications were required for the appointment of guardians. In practice, according to the information available to the Croatian Law Centre, when workers from Centres for Social Welfare were appointed as guardians, these were usually lawyers, social workers or social pedagogues who are working within the Centre for Social Welfare.

According to the Report of the Croatian Ombudsperson for Children for 2018, published in March 2019, centres for social work are still appointing guardians for unaccompanied children from the circle of adults that arrive with the child.[7] However, according to the Ministry of Demography, Family, Youth and Social Policy, on average, one guardian is appointed for 2.15 unaccompanied children. Almost all appointed special guardians were employees of social welfare centres, replacing the previous practice of appointing persons who travelled with the child.[8]

In 2019, the Ombudsperson for Children reported that special guardians were generally appointed from the Centres for Social Welfare staff (272 special guardians were appointed in 2019) and from the staff of social welfare institutions in which unaccompanied children were accommodated (7 employees were appointed in 2019). [9] However often, the staff of Centres for Social Welfare are not motivated to take special guardianship of unaccompanied children due to other the obligations arising from their regular tasks.

According to the Ombudsperson for Children guardians are often not available or are not in regular contact with the child; meaning that in certain cases the guardians visit children only when they are invited by the Ministry of Interior or other institutions/organisations, or when they are required to attend official interview. The report also states that foreign nationals with whom unaccompanied children were apprehended have continued to be appointed as guardians. This concerned 12 children in 2019. [10]

During 2015-2016, UNHCR organised training in the transit centre of Slavonski Brod for employees of Centres for Social Welfare, while in 2016 they organised a roundtable on unaccompanied children for directors of Centres for Social Welfare, directors of Residential Child Care Institutions and special guardians.[11]

In October 2016, UNICEF in cooperation with the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs, Ministry of Interior and the (now) Ministry of Demography, Family, Youth and Social Policy, organised a conference with the aim to exchange experience and knowledge between relevant actors and to build capacities and cooperation in protection of unaccompanied children.[12] Throughout 2016, UNICEF organised trainings for social workers, volunteers and other persons working directly with children. One of the challenges stressed by UNICEF is the lack of consolidated records on the state level for unaccompanied children, not limited to those seeking asylum, making it difficult to track data on this group of children. During 2016, the Croatian Red Cross, in cooperation with relevant institutions and partner organisations, developed a Guide for Guardians.[13]

Since November 2016 and throughout 2017 the Croatian Law Centre, in partnership with the Centre for Social Welfare Zagreb and Centre for Social Welfare Kutina and in cooperation with experts from UNHCR, the Croatian Red Cross and the University of Zagreb Faculty of Law, implemented a project entitled “Improving the protection of the rights of unaccompanied children”.[14]

In November 2017, the Croatian Law Centre started with the implementation of the project “Together in protection of unaccompanied children” with Residential Child Care Institutions in Ivanec, Karlovac and Zagreb.[16] The project ended in October 2018. The aim of the project was to improve the legal protection of unaccompanied children through legal assistance and support to both unaccompanied children and professionals working with children in institutions. In September 2018, a joint workshop was held with all the experts who attended the meetings held during the implementation of the project in Ivanac, Karlovac and Zagreb. During the workshop,  the Model of legal protection of unaccompanied children was finalised and presented together with conclusions and recommendations.[17] These materials were disseminated to all institutions involved in the project as well as to those who were not included but work with unaccomapnied children, and also to all centers for social welfare and relevant actors in the system of protection of unaccompanied children.

In November, 2018 the Croatian Law Centre started with the implementation of the project “Let’s realise the rights of unaccompanied children”,[18] with Residential Child Care Institutions in Ivanec, Rijeka and Zagreb. The project ended in October 2019. The aim of the project was to improve the legal protection of unaccompanied children by providing professional legal assistance and support to unaccompanied children but also to professionals in schools, health centers and ministries responsible for exercising the rights of unaccompanied children. During  the project, a roadmap on the family reunification process was prepared  and disseminated to relevant stakeholders. The roadmap is a detailed description of the actions that need to be taken during the family reunification process.

In addition, due to the increase in the number of unaccompanied children, in the third quarter of 2016 the Croatian Law Centre, as implementing partner of UNHCR,[19] started providing free legal aid in places where unaccompanied children are accommodated (Residential Child Care Institutions in Zagreb, Split, Rijeka and Osijek, and Child Reception Units), when needed and depending on the number of children accommodated. The activity continued in 2018. In 2019 the majority of counselling services were organised in Zagreb.

In November and December 2019, UNHCR organised four workshops in Croatia on the practical implementation of the 2018 Protocol on procedures for unaccompanied children. The workshops were attended by 154 persons, including 71 police officers for irregular migration and 83 social workers and childcare professionals from centres for social welfare and children’s facilities. The following topics were presented at the workshops: identification of UASC among groups of irregular migrants, initial health assessment, initial best interest assessment, access to international protection and accommodation to children’s facilities, followed by casework and real-life story of an UASC. The topics of the workshops were designed by a Working Group comprising of representatives of respective ministries, international organisations and civil society organisations.[20]

 

Capacity and performance of functions

 

Guardians of unaccompanied children were and still are generally appointed among the social workers of the competent Centre for Social Welfare.

According to the law, the best interests of children should be considered when implementing provisions of LITP,[21] so also when appointing a person to act as a guardian. The best interests of the child shall be assessed, taking into account:

  • The welfare and social development of the child, and his/her origin;
  • The protection and safety of the child, especially if the possibility exists that he or she is a victim of trafficking in human beings;
  • The child's opinion, depending on his or her age and maturity; and
  • The possibility of family reunification, etc.

The guardian of an unaccompanied child shall undertake all the necessary activities, including contact and cooperation with the competent ministries, other state and foreign bodies, and NGOs, in order to reunite the child with his or her family if this is in the best interests of the child.

On the other side, the LITP prescribes that a guardian shall not be appointed when an unaccompanied child is over 16 years of age and is married,[22] which can be understood that persons from the age of 16 have the capacity “to perform procedural acts” on their own behalf in procedures for international protection.

One of the issues with regard to guardianship in the past was also that of the appointment of a person from those with whom the child entered Croatia. Although this no longer applies to the majority of cases, it seems that from time to time such persons are appointed as guardians.

 


[1] Article 2(1)(17) LITP.

[2] Ministry of Interior, Statistics 2019, available in Croatian at: https://bit.ly/2UMPpMk

[3] Ombudsperson for Children, Report on the work of Ombudsman for Children in 2019, March 2020, available in Croatian: https://bit.ly/2VHkC2Z.

[4] Ombudsperson for Children, Report on the work of Ombudsman for Children in 2019, March 2020, available in Croatian: https://bit.ly/2VHkC2Z.

[5] Article 17(1) LITP.

[6] Information provided by the Ministry of Interior, 28 January 2019.

[7] FRA, Migration flows: Key fundamental rights concerns – Q4, 2019, available at: https://bit.ly/3bMF8FQ; Ombusman for children, Report available in Croatian at: https://bit.ly/3bOsQwy.

[8] FRA, Migration flows: Key fundamental rights concerns – Q2, 2019, available at: https://bit.ly/3dXREnQ.

[9] Ombudsperson for Children, Report on the work of Ombudsman for Children in 2019, March 2020, available in Croatian: https://bit.ly/2VHkC2Z.

[10] Ombudsperson for Children, Report on the work of Ombudsman for Children in 2019, March 2020, available in Croatian: https://bit.ly/2VHkC2Z.

[11] Information provided by UNHCR, 17 January 2017.

[12] Information provided by UNICEF, 31 January 2017.

[13] Information provided by the Croatian Red Cross, 13 February 2017, available in Croatian at: https://bit.ly/2IHtk9a.  

[14] The Project is financed by the Ministry of Demography, Family, Social Affairs and Youth of Republic of Croatia.

[15] Croatian Law Centre, ‘Izrađen informativni letak za djecu bez pratnje u audio formatu – dostupan i na web stranici HPC-a’, 17 July 2017, available at https://bit.ly/2H9BpX3

[16] Supported by the Ministry for Demography, Family, Youth and Social Policy.

[17] Croatian Law Centre, ‘Projekt „Zajedno u zaštiti djece bez pratnje“’, 30 October 2018, available in Croatian at: https://bit.ly/2UClrIx.

[18] The project is supported by the Ministry for Demography, Family, Youth and Social Policy.

[19] The project Legal Services to Asylum Seekers has been implemented by the Croatian Law Centre from 1 February 2003, with the aim of providing free legal aid to asylum seekers and recognised refugees i.e. asylees and foreigners under subsidiary protection. The project is being implemented with financial support from and in close co-operation with the UNHCR Representation in Croatia.

[20] EMN, Bulletin, February 2020, available at: https://bit.ly/2Rdeuhi.

[21] Article 10 LITP.

[22] Article 17(3) LITP.

 

Table of contents

  • Statistics
  • Overview of the legal framework
  • Overview of the of the main changes since the previous report update
  • Asylum Procedure
  • Reception Conditions
  • Detention of Asylum Seekers
  • Content of International Protection
  • ANNEX I – Transposition of the CEAS in national legislation