Croatia joining the Schengen area does not mean the “migrant” crisis behind us – it is just beginning

On Tuesday, 22 November 2022, the new proposal of the Act on Amendments to the Act on International and Temporary Protection was introduced in the Croatian Parliament. Several MPs took part in the debate and their arguments covered a range of issues: the necessity of improving integration policy with a focus on housing policies, education and employment (Mrak-Taritaš); the necessity of improving reception capacities for unaccompanied children, increasing the number of guardians for unaccompanied children, the possibility of employing asylum seekers immediately and not after 6 months, the necessary implementation of Croatian language courses (Raukar); the risk that Croatia will become like Sweden, with neighbourhoods where Swedish is no longer spoken (Milanović Litre); the desire for Europe to remain a Christian continent where everyone coming from elsewhere should assimilate because assimilation is good practice, especially assimilation in the advanced European society (Zekanović); and the clarification that we live in a secular society and that some members of parliament should assimilate into modern secular society (Orešković). The debate provided a great example of the broad range of opinions on migration and the integration system in Croatia. For years, Croatia has positioned itself as a transit country and is not doing much to advance from that position to a welcoming society of opportunity. 

In the last six months, there has been an increasing number of people staying in Croatia passing through many local communities on their way to western EU countries. The City of Rijeka was the first local community to organise humanitarian support and on Tuesday, November 22, the City of Zagreb followed suit – by opening a humanitarian site for migrants behind the Central Train Station next to the Paromlin building. Deputy Mayor Luka Korlaet stressed that the current city administration wants to present a humane face towards migrants, and that the whole process is coordinated in cooperation with the Ministry of the Interior. The humanitarian site serves as a short-term stop offering a warm meal, hygiene products, a heated tent and showers every day from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Koralet also stated that with Croatia joining Schengen, the “migration crisis will be behind us”, and that “from 1 January onwards, the circumstances will change significantly”. According to media statements after the meeting held on Wednesday, November 23, between Prime Minister Plenković and Austrian Chancellor Nehammer, Austria will support Croatia’s entry into Schengen. But what does joining Schengen mean for refugees and other migrants? The political back-and-forth may be over, but an even greater humanitarian crisis is emerging on the outskirts of the EU, where the lives of refugees and other migrants are at even greater risk. Austrian Chancellor Nehammer said that Croatia “fulfilled all its obligations – we can track exactly where illegal migrants are coming from by interviewing them, checking their mobile phones”. In practice, this could mean that under the Dublin Regulation, all persons who passed through Croatia will be returned here, and then potentially deported to their countries of origin or countries with which Croatia has readmission agreements. 

In addition to refugees, an increasing number of migrant workers have recently been coming to Croatia. In her segment for the investigative programme Provjereno, Danka Derifaj reveals the inhumane conditions in which many migrant workers live and work. “105,000 work permits were issued this year alone. An increasing number of workers come from third world countries like Nepal, Philippines, India. Agencies are promising them decent salaries, accommodation, meals, transportation and visa processing, but many still paid hundreds of euros to come here and work. Many have been left out in the street, with no money and practically in debt bondage. What is concerning is that Croatian institutions have virtually no control over the whole situation.” Derifaj spoke with the Croatian Association of Employers, the Croatian Employment Service and the trade unions, and they all agree on the fact that in Croatia the system has no control over this issue, inviting crime, violence, prostitution and human trafficking, the prevention of which is not the responsibility of foreigners, but the institutions of the Republic of Croatia.

An extraordinary meeting of the Justice and Home Affairs Council is scheduled for Friday, 25 November 2022, where the EU Action Plan on the Central Mediterranean will be presented. The Action Plan proposes a series of 20 measures designed “to reduce irregular and unsafe migration, provide solutions to the emerging challenges in the area of search and rescue and reinforce solidarity balanced against responsibility between Member States”. The Commission also highlights that the proposed Action Plan may serve as a “model to develop similar plans addressing the specificities of other migratory routes, such as the Türkiye/Eastern Mediterranean route, the Western Mediterranean/Atlantic route, as well as along the Western Balkans migratory route”. Ahead of the meeting, a  debate was held in the European Parliament on Wednesday, November 23, on the topic “The need for a European solution on asylum and migration including search and rescue”, where the border situation was discussed. In the opening statement, Mikulaš Bek and Margaritis Schinas made it clear that the Commission’s intention is to adopt the proposed EU Pact on Migration and Asylum as soon as possible, on which no agreement has been reached for two years due to a number of issues. For the last two years, both international and national organisations have been alerting of all the problematic aspects of the Pact. In September, the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) warned of the danger of the latest proposed Regulation addressing situations of instrumentalisation in the field of migration and asylum. ECRE warns that the new proposal introduces a mechanism that allows member states to derogate from their responsibilities under EU asylum law in situations of “instrumentalisation” of migration. The mechanism would be permanently available to Member States who can invoke it in multiple situations, essentially enabling them to derogate at will from their obligations. 

The political events in Croatia and the EU in recent weeks indicate that the crisis will not be behind us any time soon – on the contrary, we are yet to face a crisis of humanity and a crisis of politics. We may no longer see refugees and other migrants on our streets, but migration flows will become even more uncertain, as well as deadlier and riskier. The humanitarian and political crisis will transfer to neighbouring countries, borders, local communities along the border, forests and rivers. According to data provided by the Danish Council for Refugees operating in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the illegal and violent treatment of refugees and other migrants did not stop during this period, but was merely reduced, and from 1 January it could experience an increase. Instead of accepting this reality, we must fight against it by creating new practices in our local communities – administrative sanctuaries, safe and legal routes, local centres for status regulation, alternatives to detention. There are ways and practices to do this, but Croatia lacks the political will for either!

hr Croatian