Nikola Milina, the head of Croatian police, said that the violent pushbacks at the Croatian-Bosnian border filmed in October 2021 were an “individual event” and that he doesn’t want that to “affect the praise the police receive for their everyday sacrificial work”. Data from NGOs and media reports show that these events may have been more than a single event. The statement is therefore rated as mostly false, acknowledging the fact, however, that there is no significant proof of a statewide operation.
At the beginning of October 2021, footage went public which showed Croatian police forces violently attacking refugees at the Croatian-Bosnian border. The footage was published by several international journalist outlets, including German public service broadcaster ARD.
In a press conference on October 8th 2021, head of Croatian police Nikola Milina commented on the reports, saying that his “interest is certainly to shed light on this event to the end, in no way do we want the individual event to affect the praise the police receive for their everyday sacrificial work…”
This statement contradicts the ongoing reports about violent pushbacks along the outer EU border of Croatia. Since the closing of the so-called Balkan route in 2015, the pathway through Bosnia, Croatia and surrounding countries has become a crucial point in refugee streams on European ground. In this fact check, we want to analyze Milina’s claim. To this end, we will first have to define what counts as pushback and as violent pushback.
The terminology of pushback
The term “pushback” is commonly used to describe the practice of returning refugees out of the country without allowing them access to standard asylum protocol. Technically, this practice violates Article 18 of the EU fundamental rights charter, which is linked to the Geneva Convention from 1951 and secures every individual the right for a fair asylum process. This also applies to illegal immigrants.
Added to that, EU law also forbids countries to return immigrants to states where they could face torture or other human rights-violating procedures. This agreement is known as the non-refoulment principle and is also described in the EU fundamental rights.
Now, what is considered to be a „violent pushback”? In the report of ARD, Croatian operatives have been filmed beating and shooting during pushbacks. In addition to that, according to the monthly reports of the NGO „Border Violence Monitoring Network“ (BVMN), there have been several incidents including physical violence, such as the use of dogs, sexual assault cases, beating, kicking, systematic attacks causing bone-breaking, forcing families and children to cross rivers, theft, grabbing people’s genitals, forcing to undress and burning people’s clothes. Furthermore, BVMN also collected cases of psychological violence used by Croatian Border Police, including racial profiling, threatening, verbal abuse, disgrading people’s religious beliefs, tagging transit groups with spray paint and forcing refugees into dehumanizing accommodation. This database is based on testimonies that are created via guide interviews and open talks with refugees. Whether or not Nikolai Milina considers psychological threats to be violence, it can’t be denied that several cases of physical violence were reported at the Croatian Border.
As a result of those reports on violent pushbacks, some EU countries have criticized the Croatian government. In August 2021, Croatia announced that it would implement a border monitoring system to review reports of such incidents. Multiple NGOs, including the Centre for Peace Studies from Croatia and the Danish Refugee Council, criticized the lack of independence and supervision of the planned monitoring system.
Croatia in the crossfire of controversies
It is not known how many pushbacks take place at the European border in total. There are attempts from many local NGOs to collect as many incidents as possible.
The BVMN counted 1824 people being part of violent pushbacks along the Croatian-BiH border since the start of 2021. Furthermore, 182 similar events were counted at the Croatian-Serbian border. With that number, Croatia ranks 2nd behind Greece. The situation in the Aegean Sea also caused a huge controversy about the refugee management on EU ground.
BVMN emphasizes that “the testimonies database does not represent all pushbacks happening and cannot be seen as a statistical representation of a population of pushbacks.” However, other NGOs, such as the Danish Refugee Council (DNC), also provide very high numbers saying that 8000 individual pushbacks have been reported since the start of 2021 along the Croatia-BiH-border alone. It is possible that people experience multiple pushbacks and therefore, getting counted more than once.
In general, it is impossible to collect all numbers of pushbacks along the Croatian border. However, the claim of Nikola Milina contradicts the media coverage and the reports from multiple NGOs in the region. Violent incidents occur not on singular but on frequent occasions. Whether these incidents are a product of statewide operation or based on arbitrariness, is yet to be uncovered.
RESEARCH | ARTICLE © Julia Kunert, Antonia Zwicker & Luis Bracht, Stuttgart Media University, DE in collaboration with University of Zagreb, HR
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