The 94-page report, “‘Like We Were Just Animals’: Pushbacks of People Seeking Protection from Croatia to Bosnia and Herzegovina,” finds that Croatian authorities engage in pushbacks, including of unaccompanied children and families with young children. The practice is ongoing despite official denials, purported monitoring efforts, and repeated – and unfulfilled – commitments to respect the right to seek asylum and other human rights norms. Border police frequently steal or destroy phones, money, identity documents, and other personal property, and often subject children and adults to humiliating and degrading treatment, sometimes in ways that are explicitly racist.
“Pushbacks have long been standard operating procedure for Croatia’s border police, and the Croatian government has bamboozled European Union institutions through deflection and empty promises,” said Michael Garcia Bochenek, senior children’s rights counsel at Human Rights Watch and the author of the report. “These abhorrent abuses – and the official duplicity that facilitates them – should end.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 100 people, including more than 20 unaccompanied children and two dozen parents travelling with young children, who described often-brutal pushbacks, some as recently as April 2023. Some people said Croatian police had pushed them back dozens of times, routinely ignoring their asylum requests.
Croatian authorities have nearly always disclaimed responsibility for pushbacks, and the Croatian Ministry of the Interior did not respond to Human Rights Watch’s requests for a meeting or for comment on its findings.
Croatia, a European Union member state on the union’s external border, joined the Schengen Area, countries that generally allow free travel without border checks, in January 2023. In the months before the decision, border police appeared to push back fewer people and to curb some of their most violent practices. Nonetheless, by March they had resumed large-scale pushbacks, Human Rights Watch found.
Between January 2020 and December 2022, the Danish Refugee Council recorded nearly 30,000 pushbacks. Approximately 13 percent of pushbacks recorded in 2022 were of children, alone or with families. Afghanistan is the most common country of origin.
In a typical pushback, Croatian police do not transfer people to authorities of Bosnia and Herzegovina at regular border posts. Instead, Croatian police transport people to points elsewhere along the border and order them across. People described having to wade across rivers or streams, scramble over rocks, or make their way through dense forest, often at night and without any idea of how to reach the nearest town.
Bosnia and Herzegovina’s asylum system is ineffective, meaning that it is not an option for most people seeking international protection. Only five people received refugee recognition in 2021, up from one in 2020 and three in 2019, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
In the second half of 2022, as the EU was in the final stages of considering Croatia’s application to join the Schengen Area, Croatian police increasingly employed an alternative tactic of issuing summary expulsion orders, which also did not consider protection needs or offer due process protections. By late March 2023, Croatian police appeared to have abandoned this practice.
In March and April, Croatian police also transferred several hundred people to Bosnia and Herzegovina under a “readmission agreement” and suggested that such readmissions would continue. Readmission is a formal procedure carried out at regular border posts, but readmissions to Bosnia and Herzegovina from Croatia do not consider protection needs and do not afford critical due process protections, including the right to appeal. These readmissions are effectively mass summary expulsions, Human Rights Watch said.
Austria, Italy, and Slovenia have also used their readmission agreements with each other and with Croatia in much the same way, meaning that even if people reach Slovenia or another EU country, they may find themselves returned, in turn, to each country they passed through on their journeys through Europe. Readmissions from Austria, Italy, and Slovenia are currently suspended, but the Italian government has suggested that it would resume readmissions to Slovenia as soon as it is able to do so.
The European Union has contributed substantial funds to Croatian border management without securing meaningful guarantees that Croatia’s practices adhere to international human rights norms and comply with EU law. An EU-funded border monitoring mechanism established in 2021 has lacked independence.
Croatia’s pushback practices violate the international prohibitions of torture and other ill-treatment, collective expulsion, and return to risk of harm, known as refoulement. Pushbacks of children violate child rights norms.
Croatia should immediately end pushbacks and other collective expulsions to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Human Rights Watch said. Other EU countries, including Italy and Slovenia, should not seek to return people to Croatia until Croatian authorities end collective expulsions and ensure respect for the right to seek asylum.
The European Commission should require Croatian authorities to end pushbacks and other human rights violations at the border and provide concrete, verifiable information on steps taken to investigate human rights violations against migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees.
“Pushbacks should not be business as usual,” Bochenek said. “EU institutions need to act decisively to hold Croatia to account for these regular violations of EU law and international norms.”
“The police came. They had us remove our clothes. They took our phones. They searched us. We said we want to seek asylum in Croatia. We said we needed medical attention. They said, ‘Go.’ They deported us with no consideration of our situation. This was the fifth time this has happened to us.”
Stephanie M., a 35-year-old woman from Cameroon, interviewed in May 2022.
Firooz D., a 15-year-old boy from Afghanistan, told Human Rights Watch Croatian police kicked him and another 15-year-old boy, took €500 and everything else in his backpack, and then pushed him back to Bosnia and Herzegovina in April 2023. “They said if they caught us again, they would really beat us.”
Rozad N., 17, said that the first time he and his family entered Croatia, “A policeman took my phone from me and put it in his pocket…. I was surprised. I said, ‘What are you doing? That’s my phone.’ He said, ‘Oh, it was yours. Now it belongs to me.’ I didn’t understand what was going on. I started yelling, and he beat me.” On later attempts to enter Croatia, he regularly saw police take phones: “They make you open the phone, and they go to the maps to see what you’ve marked. They check the photos. They look to see if there are any group chats. They want to see if you have had any contact with smugglers. Then, if they like the phone, they make you enter the code so they can restore all the factory settings, and they keep it.”
Rozad N., a 17-year-old boy from Iraq, interviewed in November 2021.
“Why do they treat us this way? It is not right. Don’t send us back. Don’t frustrate us like this. Now I have no money. I have no food. How do I survive? Yesterday night one man wanted to kill himself.”
Emmanuel J., a 25-year-old man from Ghana, speaking to Human Rights Watch in May 2022, the day after being pushed back from Croatia.