A Letter to the Federal Government of Germany

Foto: Steffen Kugler

For months we have been working on the compilation and publication of reports on border violence, cooperating with international NGOs, calling for statements from political actors* and using our network to exert pressure on those responsible. Yet the meeting between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković in Berlin on 28 August 2018 was accompanied by a sobering message: According to the press release (in German), Germany was satisfied with Croatia’s role in securing the EU’s external borders.

Considering Croatia’s appallingly violent border security policy, the fact that only internal investigations are permitted to clarify the cases and the denial of all allegations of violence by the Croatian Ministry of Interior, we find this statement very alarming. Open criticism and a clear position against human rights violations must be part of a culture of political dialogue.

We decided to comment on the press release and wrote a letter to the Chancellor as well as to members of the Federal Government, pointing once again to the brutality of Croatian border officials. Truth is, this is a topic which has already been taken up in detail in the German and international press and which has meanwhile triggered political debates at EU level. Yet unfortunately the documented allegations of violence and complaints were not mentioned in the press release.

“Dear Mrs. Merkel,

Dear Members of the Federal Government,

It was with dismay that we read the transcript of the press conference by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković on 28.08.2018 (→ Link).

“Croatia is doing an outstanding job with its security forces [EU External Border Guard]. I would like to praise that explicitly”.

When Croatia joined the European Union in 2013, it committed itself to complying with and enforcing international law. The Geneva Convention on Refugees, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, the UN Charter of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights are important elements of this commitment. Since many months, these laws are being violated on the borders of Croatia/Serbia and Croatia/Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In cooperation with international NGOs, the association Rigardu documents cases of illegal push-backs and excessive violence by Croatian police officers* (www.borderviolence.eu). Croatian police systematically abuse and humiliate refugees in an attempt to deter them from entering the country.

The Croatian border police deports refugees back to Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia without granting them access to a fair asylum procedure, even after an explicit request for asylum has been made. In addition, Croatian border officials hit people with batons, fire shots in close proximity and demand that refugees strip themselves completely. They are locked into closed cells and cars with lack of oxygen. In addition, Croatian officials steal or destroy personal items such as mobile phones and ID and registration documents. Every day, people on the run, including families and unaccompanied minors, tell us about these practices of the Croatian border police.

We refer in particular to the principle of non-refoulement in Art. 32, 33 Geneva Convention, the right to freedom and security (Art. 6 CFR)/Art. 3 UDHR), the right to property (Art. 17 CFR), the right to asylum (Art. 18 ECHR) and the right to asylum (Art. 18 ECHR).  CFR/Art. 1 ECHR/Art. 17 UDHR), right to asylum (Art. 18 CFR/Art. 14 UDHR), protection in case of deportation, expulsion or extradition (Art. 19 CFR), right to a fair trial (Art. 6 ECHR/Art. 10 UDHR) and prohibition of torture (Art. 3 ECHR/Art. 5 UDHR/Art. 4 CFR), which are ignored by the EU Member State Croatia.

This behaviour is inhumane, illegal and in no way tolerated. You must be aware that the methods of the security forces are not to be praised by the Federal Chancellor, but criticised and condemned to a high degree; the actions of Croatian border officials should be closely examined. Human rights violations on this scale must not go undetected in an EU Member State and should not be tolerated under any circumstances”.

 

Border violence and illegal push-backs on the rise – August update from the EU’s external borders with Bosnia

In August, our team in Bosnia and Herzegovina (mainly NoNameKitchen and Balkan Info Van) reported 260 cases of illegal push-backs from EU territory (Croatia and Slovenia) to Bosnia. However, there are most likely many others cases that remain unreported by our organizations.

In most cases, the victims of illegal push-backs were subjected to violence and humiliation at the hands of Croatian and Slovenian border authorities. The officers used sticks and stun batons on their victims, intimidated and threatened them, shot their guns in close proximity, strip-searched and sometimes sexually harassed, detained them in closed cells and cars with lack of oxygen, stole or destroyed possessions such as phones and legal documents and, in all cases, deported them back to Bosnia without giving access to asylum procedures.

red dots mark spots where the majority of the reported violent push-backs took place

We have observed several patterns in the violence used against the people attempting to cross the EU borders.

Firstly, the victims of the physical attacks by the border authorities were mainly people who clearly expressed their wish to claim asylum in Croatia or Slovenia. Simply by asking, people seem to be provoking or somehow aggravating the police officers. Groups described how they were told to “shut up”, and where individuals tried to articulate their asylum requests verbally, they were targeted disproportionately. Simply by speaking up, asylum seekers are now increasingly targeted by violent border guards. It seems that groups are forced to comply by remaining silent; meanwhile the relevant authorities refuse to comply with international law on asylum.

Furthermore, we have noticed a close cooperation between the Slovenian and Croatian police forces. The Slovenian police often hand people over to Croatian border forces dressed in black and called “commando”; a unit in charge of the violent push-backs to Bosnia. These violent deportations take place mainly in unmarked locations, particularly forests and mountain areas, close to Velika Kladuša, Šturlić, and Bihać (BiH).

Several victims also reported to us that they had seen Croatian and Slovenian officers paying the local population bribes in exchange for giving information about the place of residence of people on the move.

Within the detected and reported cases by our organizations, we have identified 43 children and minors, and 13 women. Women and children were either directly physically attacked by the border authorities or suffered injuries during the violent deportations (see also [1])

While we keep receiving large numbers of testimonies proving the continuing existence of border violence, the Croatian interior ministry still denies all allegations of police brutality. The ministry has stated to media that the Croatian police is acting in accordance with national laws, as well as international standards [2].

Here you can read the full article by Karolina (NoNameKitchen) and Simon (Balkan Info Van):

https://medium.com/are-you-syrious/illegal-push-backs-and-border-violence-from-the-eu-external-borders-to-bosnia-5f2ef2b941f

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[1] Ahmetasevic, N. for AlJazeera (08.09.2018): https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/metoo-fortress-europe-borders-180905074913780.html

[2] N1 Zagreb (22.08.2018): http://ba.n1info.com/a280377/English/NEWS/Croatian-ministry-denies-allegations-of-police-brutality.html

Border Violence Monitoring goes European Parliament

Push-backs and police violence are still daily fare: We keep receiving reports pointing to collective expulsions and police violence in Croatia and Hungary.

On the Croatian border, violence exacerbated recently, when Croatian police shot and injured two 12-year-olds, as AYS reports.

“Last night’s incident is just one of many recent examples of police brutality along the Croatian border. Vulnerable people are targeted, criminals often avoid any legal consequences, and police officers involved in deaths or injuries of refugees on Croatian borders also avoid any penalties. Officers remain on duty, further endangering people who are trying to find safety in Croatia and other EU countries.”

Meanwhile in Subotica, Serbian police officers burned down a building sheltering a group of refugees. No one was injured, but many lost all of their belongings.

In the meantime, we keep working to make this reality of systematic human rights abuse part of political discourse on the European level.
A recording of the meeting can be accessed under the following link. The request is read from 15:28:45, some answers are given from 15:47:30.

http://web.ep.streamovations.be/index.php/event/stream/20180514-1500-committee-libe

“The Consultative Forum’s Annual Report mentions that Frontex has significantly reduced the number of deployed officers and assets in Hungary. Is there information available to the public regarding the number of Frontex officers remaining in Hungary? Have similar measures been taken in Croatia, where regular fundamental rights violations have also been documented by different actors over the last few years?
Frontex Executive Director has suggested that Frontex presence could contribute to minimise use of violence on the border, as well as to document circumstances on the ground. Has Frontex documented any cases of fundamental rights violations in Hungary or Croatia? If this is the case, are there any reports available to the public?
As the forum rightly declared, developments in Hungary have further exacerbated the risks of Frontex being involved in serious fundamental rights violations. In fact, activists have documented several cases of Frontex officers allegedly taking part in, or witnessing excessive violence against asylum seekers. Is the Forum aware of these incidents? Is there any evidence of these cases in Frontex internal documentation? What is the agency’s response to these allegations? “

Even though the answers are rarely satisfying, we keep on going. From enquiries to the European Commission or formal complaints with Frontex to legal procedures, a variety of instruments is available. The point is to raise political pressure and to confront policymakers again and again with the reality on the ground.

 

Action – Response – Effect?

Action – Response – Effect… This is our hope for our commitment to the “Border Violence” project.

Since the spring of 2017, we have been trying to document as many cases of human rights violations at the EU’s external borders as possible. Interviews with victims of police violence, photos of the resulting injuries and audio recordings form the basis for 135 reports that we have published on a database since December 2017: www.borderviolence.eu

The response we hoped for: Highest possible press coverage and the attention of the (responsible) of political actors.

The effect we hoped for: An end to the approved practice of protecting the EU’s external border against immigration with the means of human rights violations.

The publication of the database is now ten weeks back, so an opportunity for us to take a look back and see if reaction and effect have occurred as hoped.

The public media

With a widely published press release by the dpa (German Press Agency) we have reached numerous media in Europe and even beyond. 33 reports are known to us, including coverages in many European languages, but also in Taiwanese. Some large media houses conducted their own research which have additionally attracted many readers. As part of their research, Al Jazeera English and BalkanInsight have submitted inquiries to the relevant interior ministries of Croatia, Hungary and Slovenia. The subsequent denials cannot be surpassed in brazen ignorance. The Hungarian Ministry of the Interior, for example, writes that it wishes “to draw attention to the fact that the Hungarian police is protecting the borders of the EU and Hungary” ¹. Human rights violations are to be legitimized by referring to the protection of EU borders.

A spokesman of the Croatian police wrote in an e-mail to Al Jazeera that the authorities have “not found unprofessional or unlawful conduct of police officers toward migrants” in the cases they investigate ². According to the Slovenian Ministry of Interior, the Slovenian police has committed themselve to “maintaining high standards of professionalism and legality of their work …”. It goes on to state that “… in particular with regard to the respect for human rights, your allegations were a great surprise and we are not aware of such cases of push-backs and violence by the Slovenian police”.

We still receive inquiries from editors investigating these matters. For example, as part of the coverage of a report published in January on Spiegel Online or an interview of the web radio station detector.fm about our Border Violence Project. We were also in contact with the political magazine MONITOR of ARD during their research.

Political actors (don’t) react

We had to learn a lot about structures and competencies within the European Union. Above all, however, which EU institutions are or are not responsible for our concerns. The responses from German politicians of the Bundestag fractions all fall into the category “not worth mentioning”, if any were issued at all.

There is an EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, whose task specifically is to ensure that the “fundamental rights of the people in the EU are protected, as can be read on their homepage. It was set up “by the European Union to provide independent EU-based evidence-based fundamental rights consultation” to the EU institutions and Member States ³.

The first answer to our request: The link to the database does not work. After repeated inquiry about the further proceedings of the agency on this matter the answer came: “Thank you. We plan to address this in the next annual report of the Fundamental Rights Agency. MfG, Adriano Silvestri “.

Another attempt to contact the Fundamental Rights Agency provided us with the clues as to which other (!) EU institutions could be responsible for our concerns. Information that we had already discovered through our own research.

The answer from the Subcommittee on Human Rights of the European Parliament (DROI) is similar. Ms Kammerevert writes: “In the cases you describe, parliamentary competence does not lie with the Subcommittee on Human Rights (…), which deals exclusively with human rights violations in third countries, but with the Committee on Civil Liberties, which fully respects the Charter of Fundamental Rights within the EU (and) ensures compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights (…). “ Since this response did not reach us until mid-February, the reaction of the said Committee on Civil Liberties is still pending.

The German representation of the European Commission states in its reply that it shares our interpretation of the legal situation: “Indeed, EU law requires that fleeing persons may apply for asylum at the external borders of the European Union. Border guards must comply with the requirement of non-refoulement when carrying out border checks. People should not be returned to a third country where they may face torture or other serious human rights violations.”

Mr. von Peter (German EU Commission Representation) emphasized the close exchange of views with his colleagues in the countries concerned (local Commission representations): “Members of the Commission Representations in Zagreb, Ljubljana and Budapest have told me that they are following closely the national authorities and are in regular contact with the responsible entities.

He also refers to the cooperation with local NGOs in his reply mail. Bewildered and stunned, we were under the impression that our documentation was insufficient to get the European Commission involved:

The European Commission will follow up any information you provide, provided that it is concrete enough. The articles linked in your e-mail report possible violations of European and international standards, but they are too general to be used in order to legally review the circumstances described. The information you provide is nevertheless valuable because it feeds into our ongoing assessment of the situation on the ground. So I would like to thank you again for your e-mail.

But it is the EU Commission, which has by far the most possibilities to achieve an impact, for example by the initiation of an infringement procedure.

And otherwise?

Al Jazeera’s report also brought the attention of the United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and The Responsibility to Protect to our database, who asked for our data to be used in their monitoring work.

In two cases we were contacted by researchers and scientists (Harvard University and the International Relations / Political Science Department, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies from Switzerland). In one case, we were able to arrange a meeting with our local team to help with their research.

This shows us that we are taken seriously as experts in our area of work – an additional motivation to continue working on this project.

The bottom line

A sluggish EU system supports and protects the practice of human rights violations for the protection of the EU’s external borders, thereby fulfilling the European desire to shield itself from migration flows. This is also the – less encouraging – feedback from large human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch, who have already had to make the experience of how little European interest is in addressing these abuses.

Despite the medial publicity, and although the competent institutions, such as the ministries of the Interior of the countries concerned and respective EU bodies, are now fully aware of the human rights violations, we know of no effort that has undertaken to change the current situation. In sum, the feedback is a sobering: denial, no response, “no jurisdiction” or “factual inadequate”.

Even if our documentation can not be used as court-proof evidence: Are these concrete references to acute law-breaking by EU Member States enough so that EU institutions perform their duties and investigate these allegations? Is it the job of small NGOs to research these cases?

Or should it not be the task of for example the Commission or the Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) to review Member States’ compliance with human rights? (Quotation from the mission statement of the FRA: The FRA achieves its objectives “by collecting and analyzing objective, reliable and comparable data on a variety of fundamental rights issues in the European Union.”.). A well-funded suspicion should be the minimum that our and other reports provide. What remains is a lot of disillusionment and at the same time the realization of how important this tedious work is.

And now?

In the coming weeks we will engage ourselves with the complaints procedure of the European Commission. After a legal consultation, we want to bring the first case to an appeal and hope for further reactions on the side of the commission.

At the end of 2017, we also documented two cases in which allegedly German police officers (whose presence on the Hungarian-Serbian border can be explained by a foreign mandate to protect the EU’s external borders) were involved in acts of violence against fleeing people. We will file these cases with Frontex through another appeal procedure. We will not let go, continue to work for the protection of human rights, and demand for political reactions.

 


¹ BIRN: „The Hungarian Interior Ministry told BIRN that it wished to draw ‚attention to the fact that the Hungarian police protect the borders of the EU and Hungary’“ (http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/police-violence-against-refugees-on-balkan-route-12-08-2017)

² http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/12/group-refugees-abused-eu-border-forces-balkans-171211123811884.html

³ http://fra.europa.eu/de/about-fra

 

Human Rights are not negotiable!

The right to asylum is one of the core Human Rights, given that its purpose is to protect the very people who have been deprived of their Human Rights before.

Like no other community of states, the European Union has committed to the protection of Human Rights. (Art.2 of EU Treaty and European Charter of Fundamental Rights). Notwithstanding, it is not only this newly released evidence (www.borderviolence.eu) that suggests the systematic violation of Human Rights by the Member States Hungary, Croatia and Slovenia [1]:

1.) Expulsions onto Serbian territory, so-called push-backs, violate the principle of “non-refoulement” (part of the Geneva Convention; Art. 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights), as well as the right to asylum, especially the right to a fair asylum procedure.

2.) Denial of a fair court hearing / personal interview to persons seeking asylum: Art. 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UN) grants every person the right to ask for asylum in any country that is not their country of origin. While this does not entail the obligation to grant asylum, every application for asylum has to be heard and treated as prescribed by the applicable laws. The collective expulsion of groups without any individual case screening is a violation of the prohibition of collective expulsion of aliens as in Art. 4 of Protocol no. 4 to the ECHR as well as the right for an effective remedy before national authorities under ECHR, Art. 13. (cf. ruling of the European Court of Human Rights of 03.10.2017 [2])

3.) The physical violence perpetrated by Hungarian, Croatian and Slovenian police establishes grounds for the initial suspicion of torture (presumably for the purpose of deterrence) and cannot be justified by any means. These practices are an infringement of Art. 5 (Prohibition of torture) of UDHR and ECHR, Art. 3.

Confronted with these allegations, Hungary’s Ministry of Interior “wishes to draw attention to the fact that the Hungarian police protect the borders of the EU and Hungary”. (http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/police-violence-against-refugees-on-balkan-route-12-08-2017) In this way, the protection of EU borders is used as legitimation of clear Human Rights abuses.

Hungary’s Ministry of Interior has justified the documented acts of violence with the “protection of European borders”. Facing this statement, all EU countries have the obligation to act against Human Rights violations for the “protection of the EU”) – otherwise, the European community becomes complicit in these crimes.

We call on the governments of all Member States and on the Human Rights organs of the Council of Europe not to tolerate this behavior and use all available political means to ensure that no more Human Rights are violated by EU Member States in the future.

Every state has the right to protect its external borders. How the right to asylum is implemented may differ from country to country. However, the core of the right to asylum must never be up for discussion. Every individual has the right to a fair asylum procedure. Accepted refugees must be given shelter and protection in humane conditions.[3]

________________________________________________________________

[1]: Further reports on similar incidents:

Médecins sans frontières (03.10.2017): GAMES OF VIOLENCE, unaccompanied children and young people repeatedly abused by EU member state border authorities: http://www.msf.org/sites/msf.org/files/serbia-games-of-violence-3.10.17.pdf

UNHCR (2016): UNHCR Concerned Hungary Pushing Asylum Seekers Back to Serbia: http://www.unhcr.org/news/latest/2016/7/5788c85a4/unhcr-concernedhungary-pushing-asylum-seekers-serbia.html

Are You Syrious/Welcome Initative (05.03.2017): REPORT ON THE NEW WAVE OF VIOLENCE AGAINST REFUGEES ON CROATIAN BORDERS http://welcome.cms.hr/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/REPORT-ON-THE-NEW-WAVE-OF-VIOLENCE-AGAINST-REFUGEES-ON-CROATIAN-BORDERS.pdf

Oxfam (06.04.2017): A Dangerous ‘Game’ https://www.oxfam.org/sites/www.oxfam.org/files/file_attachments/bp-dangerous-game-pushback-migrants-refugees-060417-en_0.pdf

Human Rights Watch (2017): Croatia: Asylum Seekers Forced Back to Serbia. https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/01/20/croatia-asylum-seekers-forced-back-serbia

http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/croatia-accused-of-illegally-deporting-refugees-01-04-2017-1

http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/ngo-accuses-croatia-of-forcing-refugees-to-serbia-01-20-2017-1

[2] https://www.humanrights.ch/de/internationale-menschenrechte/europarats-organe/egmr/urteile/menschenrechtswidrige-push-backs-spanien

[3] see also Martin Klingst (2017): Menschenrechte, Schriftreihe Band 10061 der Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, Bonn

Statistical overview: January to November 2017

From the start of January to the end of November 2017, a total of at least 110 incidents of illegal push-backs were reported. However, since we can only document experiences of the people we meet in person during our activities on the ground, the real number must inevitably be much higher. Also, the following statistics are influenced by dynamics in the documentation and cannot be fully representative of the phenomenon.

In total, a staggering number of at least 857 individuals suffered illegal expulsion and police violence such as beating, kicking, electric shocks and even dog bites, were deprived of their belongings including their clothes, and forced to wait for hours at below-zero temperature.

In at least 52 of cases minors were involved, while 34 reports do not give this information. In a minimum of two thirds of the documented incidents the will to ask for asylum was explicitly expressed – which in every case was answered with the forceful expulsion of the people seeking protection.

Most of the violent acts (76) took place on Croatian territory and were perpetrated by Croatian police, whereas 16 cases were reported from Hungary and 12 from Slovenia. In the latter, Slovenian police usually worked together with their Croatian equivalents to create ‘push-back chains’ in which refugees were handed over to Croatian police which deported them back to Serbia, often beating them again upon release.

While not all reports contain information on the affected person’s nationality, at least 289 people hail from Afghanistan, 116 from Pakistan and 123 from states of the Maghreb. Other nationalities include Bangladesh, Iraq, Syria, Palestine, and Cuba.