Laila R. fled Afghanistan with her parents and her two brothers in 2016, when she was 11 or 12 years old. They sought international protection in Iran, then Turkey, and then Greece. Increasingly desperate for stability, they travelled through North Macedonia and arrived in Bosnia and Herzegovina in early 2021. When Laila first spoke to Human Rights Watch in November 2021, she and her family had tried to enter Croatia dozens of times. Croatian police apprehended her and her family each time, ignored their repeated requests for asylum, drove them to the border, and forced them to return to Bosnia and Herzegovina.
When Croatian police carry out such pushbacks—broadly meaning official operations intended to physically prevent people from reaching, entering, or remaining in a territory and which either lack any screening for protection needs or employ summary screening—they do not contact authorities of Bosnia and Herzegovina to arrange for people’s formal return. Instead, Croatian police simply order people to wade across one of the rivers that mark the international border.
Laila and many others interviewed by Human Rights Watch said Croatian authorities frequently pushed them back to Bosnia and Herzegovina in the middle of the night. She and others told Human Rights Watch Croatian police sometimes pushed them back near Velika Kladuša or other towns in Bosnia and Herzegovina. But on many occasions, the Croatian police took them somewhere far from populated areas.
Describing the first pushback she experienced, Laila said, “We had no idea where we were. It was the middle of the night, and the police ordered us to go straight ahead until we crossed the river to Bosnia. We spent that night in the forest.”
Croatian police had destroyed the family’s phones, so they had no easy way of navigating to safety. The next morning, she and her family eventually came across a road. They walked some 30 kilometers to reach Velika Kladuša.
As with Laila and her family, many of the people who spoke to Human Rights Watch told us they had first sought asylum in Greece as well as in countries outside the European Union before they attempted to enter Croatia. Laila and her family spent one month in Iran, six months in Turkey, and more than three years in Greece, leaving each country after concluding that authorities in each did not intend to respond to their requests for international protection. They did not seek international protection in Bosnia and Herzegovina because they had heard that the country’s authorities rarely granted asylum.
Croatia became an increasingly important point of entry to the European Union in 2016, after Hungary effectively closed its borders to people seeking asylum. Croatian police have responded to the increase in the number of people entering Croatia irregularly—without visas and at points other than official border crossings—by pushing them back without considering international protection needs or other individual circumstances. In April 2023, for instance, Farooz D. and Hadi A., both 15 years old, told Human Rights Watch Croatian police had apprehended them the night before, driven them to the border, and ordered them to walk into Bosnia and Herzegovina, disregarding their request for protection and their statements that they were under the age of 18.
Pushbacks from Croatia to the non-European Union countries it borders are now common. Between January 2020 and December 2022, the Danish Refugee Council recorded nearly 30,000 pushbacks from Croatia to Bosnia and Herzegovina, almost certainly an underestimate. Approximately 13 percent of pushbacks recorded in 2022 were of children, alone or with families. Human rights groups have also recorded pushbacks from Croatia to Serbia and to Montenegro.
Croatian pushbacks have often included violent police responses, including physical harm and deliberate humiliation. Video images captured by Lighthouse Reports, an investigative journalism group, for a 2021 investigation it conducted in collaboration with Der Spiegel, the Guardian, Libération, and other news outlets showed a group of men in balaclavas forcing a group of people into Bosnia and Herzegovina. Although the men did not wear name tags or police badges, the investigation identified them as Croatian police based on characteristic clothing items, the gear they carried, and the corroboration of other police officers. Der Spiegel recounted, “One of the masked men repeatedly lashes out with his baton, letting it fly at the people’s legs so that they stumble into the border river, where the water is chest-high. Finally, he raises his arm threateningly and shouts, ‘Go! Go to Bosnia!’”
In most of the accounts Human Rights Watch heard, Croatian police wore uniforms, drove marked police vans, and identified themselves as police, leaving no doubt that they were operating in an official capacity.
Men and teenage boys have told Human Rights Watch and other groups that Croatian police made them walk back to Bosnia and Herzegovina barefoot and shirtless. In some cases, Croatian police forced them to strip down to their underwear or, in a few cases, to remove their clothing completely. In one particularly egregious case documented by the Danish Refugee Council, a group of men arrived at a refugee camp in Bosnia and Herzegovina with orange crosses spray-painted on their heads by Croatian police, an instance of humiliating and degrading treatment the Croatian ombudswoman concluded was an act of religious hatred.
Younger children have seen their fathers, older brothers, and other relatives punched, struck with batons, kicked, and shoved. Croatian border police have also discharged firearms close to children or pointed firearms at children. In some cases, Croatian police have also shoved or struck children as young as six.
Croatian police commonly take or destroy mobile phones. Human Rights Watch also heard frequent reports that Croatian police had burned, scattered, or otherwise disposed of people’s backpacks and their contents. In some cases, people reported that police had taken money from them. “The last time we went to Croatia, the police took everyone’s money and all our telephones. Why are they like this?” asked Amira H., a 29-year-old Kurdish woman from Iraq travelling with her husband and 9-year-old son.
Pushbacks inflict abuse on everyone. In particular, many people said pushbacks took a toll on their mental well-being. Hakim F., a 35-year-old Algerian man who said Croatian police had pushed him back four times between December 2022 and January 2023, commented, “These pushbacks are so stressful, so very, very stressful.” Stephanie M., a 35-year-old Cameroonian woman, told Human Rights Watch in May 2022, “These pushbacks have been so traumatizing. I find I cannot sleep. I am always thinking of the things that have happened, replaying them in my head. There are days I cry, when I ask myself why I am even living. I find myself thinking, ‘Let everything just end. Let the world just end.’”
For children and their families, who frequently cannot travel as fast on foot as single adults can, pushbacks may add considerably to the time spent in difficult, often squalid, and potentially unsafe conditions before they are able to make a claim for asylum in an EU country. They increase the time children spend without access to formal schooling. For unaccompanied children in particular, pushbacks can increase the risk that they will be subject to trafficking. Family separation may also result from pushbacks: the nongovernmental organization Are You Syrious has reported cases of women allowed to seek asylum in Croatia with their children while their husbands are pushed back to Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Croatian police continued to carry out pushbacks throughout 2022, although in the second half of the year police increasingly employed an alternative tactic of issuing summary expulsion orders directing people to leave the European Economic Area within seven days. These summary expulsion orders did not consider protection needs and did not afford due process protections. By late March 2023, Croatian police appeared to have abandoned this practice and resumed their reliance on pushbacks.
Croatian authorities regularly deny the overwhelming evidence that Croatian police have regularly carried out pushbacks, sometimes inflicting serious injuries, frequently destroying or seizing phones, and nearly always subjecting people to humiliating treatment in the process. The Croatian government did not respond to Human Rights Watch’s request for comment on this report.
On the initiative of and with funding from the European Union, Croatia has established a border monitoring mechanism, with the ostensible purpose of preventing and addressing pushbacks and other abuses at the border. The mechanism’s parameters and track record have so far not been promising. Its members cannot make unannounced visits and cannot go to unofficial border crossing points. It is not clear how the members are appointed and how the mechanism’s priorities are defined. It has had its reports revised to remove criticism of Croatian police and the Croatian Ministry of the Interior.
Croatia’s consistent and persistent use of pushbacks violates several international legal norms, including the prohibitions of torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, collective expulsion, and refoulement—the sending of people to places where they would face ill-treatment or other irreparable harm or would be at risk of return to harm. Pushbacks of children violate the international norm that states take children’s best interests into account, including by taking particular care to ensure that returns of children are in their best interests. Excessive force, other ill-treatment, family separation, and other rights violations may also accompany pushback operations.
Slovenia and other European Union member states are also implicated in the human rights violations committed by Croatian authorities against people transferred to Croatia under “readmission agreements”—arrangements under which states return people to the neighbouring countries through which they have transited, with few, if any, procedural safeguards. For instance, under Slovenia’s readmission agreement with Croatia, Slovenian police summarily transferred irregular migrants to Croatia if they have entered Slovenia from Croatia, regardless of whether they requested asylum in Slovenia. In turn, Croatian authorities generally immediately pushed them on to Bosnia and Herzegovina or to Serbia.
EU institutions have effectively disregarded the human rights violations committed by Croatian border authorities. The European Union has contributed substantial funds to Croatian border management without securing meaningful guarantees that Croatia’s border management practices will adhere to international human rights norms and comply with EU law.
Moreover, the European Union’s decision in December 2022 to permit Croatia to join the Schengen area, the 27-country zone where internal border controls have generally been removed, sends a strong signal that it tolerates pushbacks and other abusive practices.
Croatia should immediately end pushbacks to Bosnia and Herzegovina and to Serbia and instead afford everybody who expresses an intention to seek international protection the opportunity to do so. Croatia should also reform its border monitoring mechanism to ensure that it is a robust and independent safeguard against pushbacks and other official abuse.
Until such time as Croatia definitively ends pushbacks and other collective expulsions, ensures that people in need of international protection are given access to asylum, and protects the rights of children, Slovenia should not seek to carry out returns under its readmission agreement with Croatia. Austria, Italy, and Switzerland, in turn, should not send people to Slovenia under their readmission agreements as long as Slovenia continues to apply its readmission agreement with Croatia.
Through enforcement of EU law and as a condition of funding, 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 reports of pushbacks and other human rights violations against migrants and asylum seekers.
The European Union and its member states should also fundamentally reorient their migration policy to create pathways for safe, orderly, and regular migration.