Refugee clampdowns in Croatia, Slovenia alarm rights groups

Refugee clampdowns in Croatia, Slovenia alarm rights groups
By bne IntelliNews January 27, 2017

Legislation adopted in Slovenia on January 26 will strip refugees and asylum seekers of protections to which they are entitled under international and EU law, Amnesty International has warned. Meanwhile, police in neighbouring Croatia have been accused of illegally forcing refugees and migrants back across the border into Serbia. 

Both countries were heavily affected by the migration crisis from mid-October 2015, when migrants and refugees were forced to change their route after Hungary closed its borders with Serbia. Croatia and Slovenia became the transit countries on the main route towards West Europe, primarily Germany and Sweden. Despite the closure of the route in 2016, there are fears of a new migration wave if Turkey decides to open its borders. 

The Slovenian national assembly endorsed amendments to the aliens act on the evening of January 26, after they were adopted by the government on January 5. These severely tighten asylum provisions in exceptional circumstances and for a limited time, including giving police officers the power to turn down asylum applicants on the border in the event of a resurgence of illegal migrations. 

Slovenian Minister of Interior Affairs Vesna Gyorkos Znidar said the measures were necessary and proportionate, and based on the fact that Slovenia is surrounded by safe countries.

“The law contained "every possible safeguard" and had been cleared by the government's legal service as well as the justice ministry. It would only be invoked in the event of extraordinary circumstances, whose occurrence will be declared by the interior ministry,” she said on January 5. In making the assessment, the ministry will take into account the number of asylum applicants, the number of refugees granted international protection, and accommodation capacity, criteria that the minister said were precisely defined.

However, the rights watchdog described the amendments as a serious backward step for human rights in Slovenia.

“Rather than recognising refugees and asylum seekers as people fleeing from the horrors of war and in need of protection, these amendments treat them as a threat to national security and strip them of vital protections under international law,” said Jelena Sesar, Amnesty International’s researcher for the Balkans and the European Union.

“By sealing its borders to these desperate people and turning its back on its international obligations, Slovenia is treading the same unseemly path as its neighbours – Hungary and Austria. This is deeply regrettable for a country which boasts a progressive approach to human rights as one of its founding principles,” Sesar added.

Meanwhile, in Croatia both Human Rights Watch (HRW) and local NGOs Welcome Initiative and Are You Serious? say they have taken testimonies from immigrants who say they were abused by the police. 

A report jointly published by Welcome Initiative and Are You Serious? includes testimonies made during the last month with about 50 immigrants, mainly from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Syria, who had reached the Serbian towns of Belgrade and Sid.

The report showed systemic violation of human rights and international law in Croatia for over a year, according to Magda Sindicic from Are You Serious? Sindicic also said that her NGO would file a report with the interior ministry, ombudsperson and international institutions like the Human Rights Council of the United Nations.

HRW had reported on January 20 that Croatian police were forcing asylum seekers back to Serbia from inside Croatia, in some cases using violence, without giving them an opportunity to lodge claims for protection, although the Croatian interior ministry dismissed the claims

Concerns in Croatia have also been increasing over the possibility of new migrant waves arriving, like those the Adriatic country faced last year. Slovenia recently started erecting wire fences on two border crossings with Croatia.

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