In January 2022, I decided to travel once again to the Croatian-Bosnian border region. The last time I was there was in 2019, right before the pandemic to look into the situation of migrants and refugees trying to seek protection in the EU and to investigate the violent pushback-practices by the Croatian border police. In 2019, our findings were shocking: extreme violence and torture against people trying to cross the border to Croatia, blatant human rights violations by the Croatian border police who was pushing people back on a daily basis. In all our conversations back then, we did not meet a single refugee who had been spared from police violence. No one who had not experienced it first hand. Not just once, but six times, 13 times, 100 times. We were able to speak with people who had just been pushed back, their belongings including food and water were taken away by the Croatian border police every single time.
Now, more than 2 years later, I decided to come back to see if the situation of people trying to seek asylum at the Croatian-Bosnian border has changed. I also decided to look more closely at two specific issues. The first issue I wanted to investigate was the ongoing criminalisation of human rights defenders in Croatia and Bosnia. The civil society who work tirelessly to help people being pushed back and to get accountability for the human rights violations happening every day are more and more criminalized and face severe problems. This is happening all over EU member states, where the space for civil society and solidarity is shrinking and solidarity is instead criminalized. The second issue I decided to look at is the Croatian so-called “independent border monitoring-mechanism” set up by the Croatian government with support of the European Commission. This mechanism is supposed to monitor human rights violations at the Croatian borders and was a cornerstone of Croatia’s policy to become a Schengen member.
The program of our fact-finding mission included meetings with refugees, civil society actors such as NGOs and lawyers, international organizations such as UNHCR and IOM, as well as on-site visits to various camps and more informal settings along the border in Croatia and Bosnia. I also had meetings with the Croatian Ministry of Interior, the implementers of the Croatian so-called “independent border monitoring mechanism”, Croatian institutions, the Croatian ombudsperson and governmental authorities in Bihac.