An official inquiry has been launched into the European commission’s alleged failure to protect the rights of migrants and refugees said to have been robbed and abused by police at Croatia’s borders.
The EU ombudsman is investigating the potential complicity of the EU’s executive branch in the maladministration of funds that should have been spent on supervising the behaviour of border officers working at the scene of some of the violence.
Croatia has repeatedly denied allegations of violence by its border patrol and in October said it would launch an investigation with the goal of removing any doubt about police conduct.
In June, the Guardian revealed that the commission had withheld from MEPs details of the Croatian government’s failure to spend EU money committed to the supervision the police officers on the border. One European commission official privately warned that disclosure of the underspend “will for sure be seen as a ‘scandal’”.
The revelation highlighted the Croatian government’s human rights record and the apparent willingness of the EU’s executive branch to cover for Zagreb’s failure.
Croatia is seeking to enter the EU’s passport-free Schengen zone – a move that requires compliance with European human rights standards.
The ombudsman’s inquiry has been launched in response to a complaint by Amnesty International whose European institutions director Eve Geddie said: “Over the years, Amnesty and other organisations have documented numerous violations, including beatings and torture of migrants and asylum-seekers by Croatian police, whose salaries may have been paid for by EU funds.
“Today’s announcement of an inquiry by the EU ombudsman into how the commission allowed the funds to continue to be used without ensuring compliance with human rights is a significant first step towards addressing these flagrant abuses and providing accountability.
“By continuing to fund border operations and giving a green light for Croatia’s accession to the Schengen area, the commission abdicated its responsibilities to monitor how EU assistance is used and sent a dangerous signal that blatant human rights violations can continue with no questions asked.”
The establishment of supervisory mechanisms to ensure the humane treatment of migrants at the border had been a condition of a €6.8m (£6.1m) cash injection announced in December 2018 to strengthen Croatia’s borders with non-EU countries.
The mechanism was publicised by the European commission as a way to “ensure that all measures applied at the EU external borders are proportionate and are in full compliance with fundamental rights and EU asylum laws”.
Croatian ministers claimed last year that the funds had been handed over to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and the Croatian Law Centre to establish the supervisory mechanism.
But both organisations subsequently denied receiving the money. In January this year, the commission was asked by Clare Daly, an Irish MEP in the Independents 4 Change party, to account for the discrepancy.
A commission official responded that the UNHCR and Croatian Law Centre had established the monitoring mechanism but from “their own funds” to ensure independence from the government.
He added: “Hopefully [this] clarifies this matter once and for all”.
But both organisations denied being involved in any monitoring project, clarifying that they had only been engaged in an earlier initiative involving the examination of police files.
Beyond the apparent inaccuracy of the response to Daly, internal emails suggest the full facts of the “underspending” – as its known to the commission – were also withheld from MEPs.
The European commission failed to inform Daly that the Croatian government had decided to ringfence only €102,000 of the €300,000 provided for the monitoring mechanism and that ultimately only €84,672 was actually spent: €17,469.87 was given to the interior ministry and €59,637.91 went to NGOs. A roundtable conference accounted for €1,703.16.
“While we know that there has been underspending on the €300,000 … we thought that around €240,000 were nevertheless spent in the context of the monitoring mechanism,” an EU official wrote while discussing how to deal with the MEP’s questions. “Having spent only €102,000, will for sure be seen as a ‘scandal’.”
In response to questions by this newspaper at the time, a spokesman for the commission said they had not provided the full information to MEPs as they had an “incomplete” account.