EU Commission home affairs chief Ylva Johansson has welcomed Croatia’s handling of media revelations showing border officers beating migrants despite NGO reports of continuing violence at the border with Bosnia.
A months-long collaborative investigation between different European outlets revealed on 6 October video footage of Croatian border police beating migrants attempting to cross the border.
The investigation came after numerous reports by civil society groups of ongoing violence on the EU’s border with Bosnia since 2018, the main migratory route through the Balkans.
In response, Croatia’s national chief police director Nikola Milina said three policemen involved belong to a special intervention unit and will now face disciplinary procedures.
“The Croatian authorities immediately acted and already some of the police that took part in that has seen consequences for that”, Johansson said following the meeting of EU home affairs ministers with their Western Balkan counterparts in Slovenia on Thursday (2 December)
“I really welcome this attitude from the Croatian government to deal with this with open eyes and to investigate and to take actions when allegations are being founded”, the Commissioner added.
However, EURACTIV’s media partner Jutarnji list reported last week that according to sources, the case is likely to result only in a mild disciplinary punishment for damaging the reputation of the police.
A source very close to the investigation reportedly told the outlet that one of the officers involved threatened to reveal their own footage of the incident, which would show the involvement of superior officers, substantiating allegations that violent practices are widespread and sanctioned.
While welcoming the speed of the investigations, Jelena Sesar, a researcher at rights watchdog Amnesty International, said “we still don’t know how this investigation is going, and what will be the results”.
“Until the investigation is fully concluded and we have evidence that this incident was taken seriously, the accountability of perpetrators was ensured, and that there is a good explanation as to why they behaved the way they did, I don’t think we can comment on the seriousness of this investigation,” she told EURACTIV in reaction to the Commissioner’s statements.
Moreover, Johansson’s description of the police violence as a one-off issue contradicts EURACTIV’s own October investigations, which suggest that the systemic and continuous nature of beatings and abuse by EU country law enforcement is widely acknowledged by civil society, local officials and international organisations like the IOM.
“The EU knows about this. It’s not a secret,” one local official recently told EURACTIV, adding that “the EU can play dumb as long as they want”.
The Border Violence Monitoring Network, a collaboration of NGOs collecting reports of pushbacks from the victims, has said the violence continues. Since the publication of the footage on 6 October it has reported on 17 instances of pushbacks involving 200 asylum seekers, many of them violent.
Monitoring mechanism that works?
Following pressure from Brussels, Croatian authorities in June announced a new independent border monitoring mechanism, supposed to protect human rights at the border.
“Now we have in place an independent monitoring mechanism that seems to work and it’s also been in place with some support from the Commission,” Johansson said.
However, civil society groups have already expressed doubts about the effectiveness of the mechanism.
“We have communicated a number of our concerns and regret that over the last couple of years the recommendations of human rights and humanitarian organisations as to how this mechanism could be made effective and meaningful were not taken into consideration when it was finally put in place,” Sesar said.
The researcher said watchdogs have still not been given full access to information on the way the monitoring mechanism will operate.
Besides transparency issues, Sesar said that the mechanism lacked operational and financial independence, as its funding, though coming from the European Commission, is channelled through the ministry of interior.
Furthermore, Sesar pointed out that the body cannot conduct unannounced visits to the so-called green border area, which is where most alleged violations are taking place.
“The mechanism is going to miss the vast majority of violations because its mandate is both geographically and administratively limited only to the very narrow border area,” she said.
“It’s also not clear whether the mechanism would be able to ensure full accountability for the violations that were documented,” she added.
Monitors do not have direct access to many of the victims since they are not able to take testimonies from the victims across the border in Bosnia or Serbia.
[Edited by Benjamin Fox]