UUSC is honored to work with our grassroots partners who dedicate themselves to defend and protect refugees across the world. Today, on World Refugee Day, we take a moment to celebrate two partnerships under our Rights at Risk portfolio. This celebration comes against a backdrop of record-high levels of global displacement—over 60 million people, among them nearly 20 million refugees—and increasingly hostile environments in which refugees can access protection and realize their fundamental human right to live in safety.
From violent border pushbacks to hate crimes to legislation that criminalizes their very existence, refugees today are under attack. Social movements demanding refugee rights are also threatened, making the work of UUSC partners all the more critical and worthy of recognition. Today, I wanted to highlight those who work in a place seldom mentioned in the headlines, but that have seen new waves of violence against refugees and new attempts to punish the act of “helping” irregular migrants with fines and jail time: Croatia.
Over the last year, UUSC partner organizations Are You Syrious (AYS) and the Centre for Peace Studies (CPS) have documented a troubling increase of unlawful expulsions and escalation of police violence against refugees who seek to cross into Croatian territory from Serbia. The refugees—mostly from destabilized Middle Eastern countries like Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq—have fled horrific war at home and journeyed across multiple countries, an exhausting and traumatizing experience.
Upon reaching the Croatian border, refugees have reason to believe they are finally arriving to a country that will protect them. Croatia is a member of the European Union and its asylum laws purportedly conform to European norms. What they find, however, is far from a hospitable reception. Our partners report that Croatian authorities confiscate property, commit severe acts of physical violence, and forcibly push refugees back across the border to Serbia, all in violation of international law. Serbia is not considered a “safe third country” by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees because their asylum procedures do not meet international standards.
Just last month, AYS and CPS spoke to a twenty-five-year-old man from Afghanistan who reported that he was apprehended by police and stuffed into a van with eighteen other people: “There was no air inside. They drove us to the ‘jungle’ across near the border with Serbia and made us sit and started to hit us. They used sticks and beat us with their heavy boots.” This is but one of numerous similar reports received by AYS and CPS of police violence and forcing refugees back to Serbia from inside Croatia, without giving them an opportunity to lodge claims for protection.
Such pushbacks are both immoral and illegal. The right to seek asylum from persecution is enshrined in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and is among the most important provisions in international law. The 1951 U.N. Convention relating to the Status of Refugees obliges States not to “refoule,” or return, a refugee to “the frontiers of territories” where life or freedom would be threatened.
As countries throughout the world shirk their obligation to offer refugees an opportunity to seek asylum, civil society actors have stepped up. CPS defends the right to seek asylum in Croatia by holding state institutions accountable working with and supporting asylum-seekers as they file complaints with police departments, Croatian ministries, and international bodies.
Likewise, AYS is a collective of committed activists who are growing a grassroots solidarity movement that breaks down social and cultural borders, in addition to physical ones. AYS decreases the social distance between Croatian people and refugees by activating volunteers for language instruction, cultural orientation, and public advocacy. This ultimately results in better quality of integration for those refugees that are able to access protection and remain in Croatia, as well as an informed public who demand better of their country.
The efforts of these vital organizations have not gone unchallenged by the Croatian government, who seek to criminalize not only refugees themselves, but anyone who stands in solidarity with them. Authorities have drafted amendments to the Croatian Foreigners Act that imposes hefty fines and subjects activists to criminal liability if they provide assistance to anyone in “irregular” status. CPS is now engaged in zealous advocacy to prevent the draft amendments from becoming law.
Acknowledging the difficult environment in which they work, and the countless, quiet ways in which they have improved the lives of refugees seeking to rebuild their lives in Croatia, UUSC is incredibly proud to support the work of Centre for Peace Studies and Are You Syrious. We honor them today, on World Refugee Day, and every day.