Exclusive: Brussels officials feared disclosing Zagreb’s lack of commitment to monitoring would cause ‘scandal’
EU officials have been accused of an “outrageous cover-up” after withholding evidence of a failure by Croatia’s government to supervise #police repeatedly accused of robbing, abusing and humiliating migrants at its borders.
Internal European commission emails seen by the Guardian reveal officials in Brussels had been fearful of a backlash when deciding against full disclosure of Croatia’s lack of commitment to a monitoring mechanism that ministers had previously agreed to fund with EU money.
Ahead of responding to inquiries from a senior MEP in January, a commission official had warned a colleague that the Croatian government’s failure to use money earmarked two years ago for border police “will for sure be seen as a ‘scandal’”.
Supervision of the behaviour of border officers had been the condition set on a larger grant of EU funds to Croatia. There have been multiple allegations of violent pushbacks of migrants and refugees by Croatian police on the border with Bosnia, including an incident in which a migrant was shot.
In response to allegations of a cover-up, an EC spokesman told the Guardian that what was known had been withheld from MEPs as the information was believed to have been “incomplete”.
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It throws a spotlight on both the Croatian government’s human rights record and the apparent willingness of the EU’s executive branch to cover for Zagreb’s failure.
Croatia is seeking to enter the EU’s passport-free Schengen zone – a move that requires compliance with European human rights standards at borders.
Despite heated denials by the Croatian authorities, the latest border incident has been described by aid workers as the most violent in the Balkan migration crisis. On 26 May, 11 Pakistani and five Afghan men were stopped by a group wearing black uniforms and balaclavas in the Plitvice Lakes, 16km (10 miles) into Croatia from the Bosnian border.
“The men in uniforms tied each of the Pakistanis and Afghanis around a tree, so their wrists were bound and they had to turn their faces toward the trees,” according to a report from the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), which provides healthcare for migrants in Bosnia. “Once these people were unable to move, the men in uniforms fired several shots in the air with guns placed close to the ears of the Pakistanis and Afghanis. There were also shots fired close to their legs.’’
“They kept shooting. They were shooting so closely that the stones under our feet were flying and being blown to pieces,” one of the men told the Guardian. “They kept saying: ‘I want to beat and kill you.’ They tortured us for three to four hours.”
The council’s report says electro-shockers were placed on people’s necks and heads. “One of the men in uniform was cutting several victims with knives and the same person inflicted cuts on both of the palms of one person.”
One asylum seeker said that one of the men put his knee on his neck, then cut at him with a blade. ‘‘He sliced the index finger of my left hand, and blood started spurting out like a small shower,’’ he said. “Then he smiled and cut my middle finger followed by my palm with a larger cut. The whole hand is swollen beyond recognition.”
After a while, the men in balaclavas called other uniformed officers.
According to the victims and a report by the DRC, “before the police arrival, one of the men in uniform made a film with his mobile phone, while others in his company were laughing, yelling and provoking”.
Upon the arrival of police officers, the migrants were put into vans and taken to the border at Šiljkovača, a village close to Velika Kladuša. Police officers did not beat them, but ordered them into Bosnian territory.
“All of them had bleeding wounds on their heads and numerous bruises on various parts of the body,” Nicola Bay, the DRC country director for Bosnia, told the Guardian. “Four of them had broken arms and one had a broken leg and both arms.”
Contacted by the Guardian, the Croatian police denied the allegations and suggested that asylum seekers could have fabricated the account and that the wounds could be the result of “a confrontation among migrants” that took place ‘‘on 28 May in the vicinity of the Croatian border, near Cazin’’.
Volunteers and charities who have treated migrants involved in the fight in Cazin, said the two incidents are unrelated and happened two days apart. Those involved in the fight in Cazin have not claimed they were attacked by the police.
The establishment of supervisory mechanisms to ensure the humane treatment of migrants at the border had been a condition of a €6.8m (£6.1m) cash injection announced in December 2018 to strengthen Croatia’s borders with non-EU countries.
The mechanism was publicised by the European commission as a way to “ensure that all measures applied at the EU external borders are proportionate and are in full compliance with fundamental rights and EU asylum laws”.
Croatian ministers claimed last year that the funds had been handed over to the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Croatian Law Centre to establish the supervisory mechanism.
Both organisations deny receiving the money.
In January this year, the commission was asked by Clare Daly, an Irish MEP in the Independents 4 Change party, to account for the discrepancy.
A commission official responded that the UNCHR and Croatian Law Centre had established the monitoring mechanism but from “their own funds” to ensure independence from the government.
He added: “Hopefully [this] clarifies this matter once and for all”.
But both organisations have again denied being involved in any monitoring project, clarifying that they had only been engaged in an earlier initiative involving the examination of police files.
Beyond the apparent inaccuracy of the response to Daly, internal emails suggest the full facts of the “underspending” – as its known to the commission – were also withheld.
The EC failed to inform Daly that the Croatian government had decided to ring-fence only €102,000 of the €300,000 provided for the monitoring mechanism and that ultimately only €84,672 was actually spent – €17,469.87 was given to the interior ministry and €59,637.91 went to NGOs. A roundtable conference accounted for €1,703.16.
“While we know that there has been underspending on the €300,000 … we thought that around € 240,000 were nevertheless spent in the context of the monitoring mechanism,” an EU official had written while discussing how to deal with the MEP’s questions. “Having spent only EUR 102,000, will for sure be seen as a ‘scandal’.”
The commission did not pass on information on the spending to Daly but privately officials agreed to seek answers urgently. They also discussed in a phone and email exchange the possibility of intervening in the member state’s planned report due to the poor handling of the matter by the Croatian government.
“Seeing how unfortunate [Croatia] is presenting this issue, [Croatia] definitively needs (your?) help in putting some ‘final touches’ to the report,” an official in the commission’s migration department wrote to a colleague. “Will [Croatia] provide you with an advance copy of the final report?”
Daly told the Guardian: “It is outrageous – the commission appears to be colluding with the Croatian authorities in a cover-up.”
An EC spokesperson said the EU’s executive branch was committed to the establishment of a fully independent border monitoring mechanism.
The spokesperson said: “We would caution against drawing misleading conclusions from reading the internal email exchanges in isolation.”
He added: “The Croatian authorities are explaining in their final implementation report how the monitoring mechanism was established, how it works in practice and outline the results.
“Given that the report submitted by the Croatian authorities was incomplete, the commission asked the Croatian authorities for clarifications first in writing and orally regarding outstanding issues (eg factual data confirming the achievements of the project indicators relating to internal controls and trainings).”