In July, illegal cross-border pushbacks continued at an increasingly institutionalized level along the EU’s external borders throughout the Balkans. Politicians, encouraged by unclear signals from the EU, have made clear that pushbacks operations are organized from the highest level of government. Varying levels of violence are employed by police officers during the apprehension, detention and return operations, creating a deterrence effect.
Competing narratives around the legality of pushbacks have emerged, muddying the waters. This has become especially clear as Croatian president Grabar-Kitarovic admitted that pushbacks were carried out legally, which is contradictory to begin with, and that “of course […] a little violence is used.”
Croatia’s tactic of de facto condoning illegal pushbacks is similar to Hungary’s strategy to legalize these operations domestically, even though they violate international and EU law. On the other side of the debate, a whistleblower from the Croatian police described a culture of secrecy and institutional hurdles, which prevent legal and organizational challenges to the practice. The role of the EU in this debate remains critical. However, despite paying lip service to the EU’s value, Brussels’ continues to shoulder the bill for a substantial part of the frontier states’ border operations.
Bihać mayor Šuhret Fazlić, whose city, along with Velika Kladuša an hour to the north, is at the epicenter of the transit flow in BiH, stated in February that “as a Bosnian, it insults me when someone from another country can enter Bosnia and do what they want in it.” In this way, Fazlić attempted to draw attention to the long alleged incursion of Croatian authorities onto BiH territory through the course of their push- back procedures: “Every day, Croatian police enter Bosnia and either return or bring fresh migrants into our city, and the State level authorities must do something about this.”
Fazlić has increasingly criticized Croatia’s actions and provided evidence for his allegations. As reported by BBC and Jutarnji List, Fazlić reports having personally witnessed Croatian police bringing “exhausted, tired, hungry” migrants into BiH territory. In one case, Fazlić witnessed “Croatian police, armed with Kalashnikovs”. Fazlić introduced himself and told the police officers that their actions are illegal, but “they just shrug and say that they have such orders” to carry out their actions. It is not only important that a political figure witnesses and thus adds more weight to the long list of allegations and evidence against Croatia, but that such a figure speaks out publicly and strongly against such actions, as Fazlić has done on numerous occasions, at one point even informing the Consul General of Croatia Zlatko Kramarić.
Fazlić is not the only voice speaking out: Minister of Security of BiH Dragan Mektić, who has previously accused Croatian police officers of forcibly returning people-in- transit to BiH, now claims he has evidence to back this claim. On August 1st, Mektić stated: “We have all the information that they come into our territory armed and record what they do with the migrants who move from Bosnia and Herzegovina to Croatia, and then they beat them, steal money, cell phones and return [them to BiH].” Mektić has forwarded all relevant information to the BiH presidency, which it is important to note has been largely silent on the issue. Mektić stated quite clearly the worry that motivates this public outcry: “something has to be done, it has to be reacted [to]…The BiH Ministry of Foreign Affairs is aware that Croatian armed forces are entering BiH and they can and must respond and protect BiH’s territorial integrity and sovereignty [emphasis added].”
While political figures who argue for territorial integrity and sovereignty are often anti-migration, Fazlić has managed to situate this rhetoric amongst more palatable concerns for human rights. It is important to note that these concerns are not merely motivated by good intentions but by political circumstances: because Bosnia is victim to Croatia’s border control activities, the argument building among figures like Fazlić and Mektić states that not only is BiH unable to host people in the long-term, but that BiH has been exploited because of its peripheral status in Europe by Croatia, who hopes to further its own bid to join the Schengen zone by using Bosnia as a “dumping ground” for people-in-transit. In this way, overtly negative pressure and attention is somewhat diverted away from people-in-transit to Croatian officials and the Croatian government. This is not to say that positive discourses surrounding the topic of migration and people-in-transit proliferate within BiH. Fazlić himself doesn’t go much further than merely calling upon external forces to fix the migrant “problem”. However, figures such as Fazlić and Mektić who criticize the Croatian government increase the pressure on the Croatian government, adding critical pressure needed to hold Croatia accountable for its illegal border practices.