Spurned by authorities, humanitarian NGOs feel unsafe in Croatia

Refugees passing in front of the Croatia-EU entrance sign in front of the Serbia-Croatia border crossing of Sid-Tovarnik on 19 September 2015, at the height of the refugee crisis. [BalkansCat/Shutterstock]

Volunteers and employees of two NGOs helping migrants in Croatia face serious threats and violence on an almost daily basis. For the first time in three years, they feel unsafe and unprotected in their city. They go to work carrying mace, as advised by the police. EURACTIV Croatia reports.

The interior ministry has refused to extend the asylum seeker centre cooperation agreement for the Center for Peace Studies (CMS), an organisation that celebrated its 20th birthday last year and has been intensively supporting refugees and asylum seekers for the last 15 years.

The decision effectively banned the CMS from asylum centres and prevented their volunteers, who have been teaching refugees Croatian and providing integration and legal advice for years, from continuing their work.

The Are You Syrious (AYS) NGO, which has been working with refugees in Croatia and the region since 2015, had seen its offices vandalised several times this year, while their volunteers and employees receive serious threats and insults almost every day.

In summer 2015, Croatia was on the Balkan route for refugees, most of whom wanted to go to Germany and other western countries. Croatia let through hundreds of thousands of people, more or less in cooperation with neighbouring Serbia, Austria and Hungary.

The Dobrodošli [Welcome] initiative, launched by the CMS, warned about cases of family separation and failure to provide help to refugees, while its volunteers worked in the field every day between mid-September 2015 and April 2016, when the asylum seeker centre in Slavonski Brod closed down.

The NGO criticised the EU for passing the “defence and protection” exam but failing the “human rights” exam.

Migrants block Bosnian border, scuffle with Croatian police

Several people were injured on Wednesday (24 October) as migrants demanding to cross Bosnia’s northwestern border threw stones at Croatian police who responded by firing teargas and using batons to push them back, a Reuters photographer at the scene said.

Humane special forces

“Local population in Slavonia was actively involved in providing support to people. They really gave them everything they had, including cooked meals, a place to shower and anything else they could,” explained Sara Kekuš from the CMS.

While they warned about the occasional use of force by the police at border crossings and asylum seeker centres, AYS and CMS volunteers remember that the police have shown a good degree of solidarity and fairness.

“We remember the Zadar special police unit in Bapska. We set up tents with food, drinks and clothes at the location where buses were to pick up people and take them to Opatovac, with police helping us. Officers inspected the crowd and told us “there is a child without footwear or clothing” or “this man needs 42 size shoes,” said ASY volunteers.

An AYS volunteer remembers a similar situation from Ključ Brdovečki, near the western border with Slovenia.

“We left apples, water and whatever we had by the road, every 30 meters or so. We did not enter people’s yards but left the supplies next to the fence, by the road. About one in fifty would exit the house and protest that we are leaving supplies in their yard. I was happy to see a police officer tell him ‘What is your problem, what are you objecting to? Go back to the house!’,” said Petar.

Distorted image

However, solidarity did not last long, largely due to the political climate in the EU which took a turn towards closing borders and keeping people out of the EU if possible, or at least out of the Schengen Area. This made us call these people seeking security and a dignified life, economic migrants and even more cruelly, illegal migrants.

“This is the result of a wider political story on the European political scene about refugees. Frequently, hard right-wing tendencies are to call refugees illegal migrants and present them as a threat to all of Europe, completely distorting the image of who these people actually are,” explained Sara Kekuš from the CMS.

AYS, for its part, is facing very serious threats and direct violence. For instance, they frequently get messages on social media such as “you are hired by Soros to Islamise Europe, we know your names. You are all on the list and will be punished accordingly.”

Then there are the epithets like terrorist helpers and “rapist helpers.”

“It is very interesting how the focus is frequently on sexual violence. Like that was something new in Croatian society that only appeared in September 2015 and is based on ethnicity,” said Asja Korbar of AYS.

They also faced direct death threats. One such case was brought to court and resulted in a restraining order against the perpetrator. Their Integration Centre and store in Novi Zagreb was the target of night vandals last weekend.

An unknown perpetrator placed an “Immigrants not Welcome” sign on the Centre and “Fuck ISIS” on their van. This was not the first time.

“All of that, let us not forget, is happening in the context where Interior Minister Davor Božinović said in parliament that our organisation is involved in obscure trafficking activities,” Asja said.

Criminalisation of solidarity

The Interior Ministry has recently exerted similar strong pressure on the CMS, explained CMS representatives.

Sara remembered that it started after the CMS and the AYS had reported the testimonies of people who claimed they had suffered violence at the hands of Croatian police despite seeking international protection in Croatia.

The situation intensified after they became involved in the case of death of Madina Husini, a girl who was killed on 21 November 2017 on the railway between Tovarnik and Šid, near the eastern border with Serbia.

“When we and the AYS became involved, the interior ministry started attempts to criminalise us. It started mentioning our organisations in the same context with traffickers, which was clearly an attempt to criminalize our work rather than investigate the death and solve the case,” explained Sara.

Croatia’s Ombudswoman Lora Vidović has loudly condemned attempts to criminalise their activities.

“Traffickers are enemies of human rights and present a serious threat to migrants, but they should never be mentioned in the same context as NGOs and volunteers who abide by Croatian regulations,” Vidović told this website.

Sara said hate speech and fearmongering brought us to the point where “citizens have turned from those who help into those who call the police when they see someone of a different skin colour.” Still, our interlocutors are of the opinion that this is a minority. A loud minority, but still a minority.

“I am sure these are only individuals and that the majority of the citizens condemn violence against anyone, but it is extremely important that relevant institutions and bodies send the same message and process those responsible,” concluded the ombudswoman.

Croatian ombudswoman to report police treatment of migrants to EU institutions

Croatia’s ombudswoman requested access to records on the treatment of migrants at the police station in Donji Lapac, central Croatia, in September but was refused. The relevant parliamentary committee does not seem to care either. EURACTIV Croatia reports.

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