The Croatian police are known for their brutality and human rights violations at the country’s external borders, yet the German governments continues to train them. Number plate scanners, thermal imaging cameras and vehicles could be used for pushbacks in violation of international law.
Croatia has been an official member of the European Union since 2013. Until then, the Western Balkan state has received the usual financial “pre-accession aid” to get fit for joining the Schengen area. However, the country is still denied full application of the Schengen acquis because of concerns raised by France and the Netherlands about the lack of rule of law. Therefore, internal border controls with neighbouring EU states Slovenia and Hungary continue.
However, one reason for the blockade of full Schengen application by individual EU members could also be Croatia’s function as a bulwark on the so-called “Balkan route”. Many refugees cross the country to reach wealthier EU states and apply for asylum there. Maintaining internal border controls with its northern neighbours could make this unwanted migration more difficult.
Controversial surveillance technology
The German government therefore also has a supposed interest in supporting the Croatian police in preventing unwanted migration via Bosnia and Herzegovina. This is done through equipment and, above all, training.
Most recently, the German Ministry of the Interior supplied three number plate recognition devices to the border police in Croatia last year. According to the answer to a parliamentary question last year, the equipment, described as “fixed cameras with vehicle reading function”, cost around €62,000.
The use of such technology is controversial. In Germany, more and more state police forces are making use of it, including Brandenburg. The federal state had even used the number plate scanners permanently and stored passing vehicles. Only a ruling by the regional court finally put an end to this practice.
A total of €163 million for border police
In January 2020, the then Federal Minister of the Interior Horst Seehofer ( Christian Social Union, CSU) also handed over ten thermal imaging cameras worth €350,000 to his Croatian colleague. These were to be used by the border troops in Croatia to control “illegal secondary migration”. This refers to the onward migration of refugees after they have applied for asylum in another country. However, this is not “illegal” in the sense of a criminal offence.
In December 2020, ten vehicles worth €835,000 followed for the Croatian border troops. In total, the technical and material support measures delivered from Germany since 2000 are said to have cost €3.1 million, explained Croatian Interior Minister Davor Bozinovic at the handover of this vehicle donation.
Together with the European Union, as much as around €163 million is said to have flowed to Croatia’s border police, the German television magazine Monitor counted.
No rule of law for refugees
At the latest since 2016, the first reports became public that Croatia was violating international law with its migration policy. Using violence, the country has presumably already denied thousands of refugees the right to apply for asylum in an EU state. This contradicts the Geneva Refugee Convention, the European Convention on Human Rights and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.
In 2019, several media also documented Croatian police driving masses of refugees back across the border into Bosnia and Herzegovina, using physical force. Pictures from hidden cameras show how people are chased through the forest by uniformed police with truncheons, pepper spray and the use of dogs.
Despite these so-called pushbacks, the then Seehofer Ministry supplied further equipment to Croatia, including protective gear, helmets, cameras and equipment for gathering and document evidence for the Croatian “Special Police”.
Vehicles for “Special Police”
The force performs tasks similar to those of the German riot police, including operations such as demonstrations, securing major events or “crisis situations”. If necessary, the “Special Police” are also seconded for patrol duty and also carry out raids.
According to media reports, four Mercedes Benz Sprinters were also handed over to the “Special Police” in the presence of the German Inspector of the Riot Police of the Länder. In an answer to a parliamentary question that became public today, the Ministry of the Interior confirms the delivery of three vehicles.
On the whole, the German equipment aid for the Croatian police may be small. However, the delivery of vehicles in particular is tricky, because they could also be used to abduct refugees to the Bosnian-Herzegovinian border and force them to leave the country. This brutal practice had been documented by an international media cooperation using a drone.
“Operational observation” at G20 meetings and football matches
Of greater importance, however, is the help Croatia received from Germany in terms of exchange of experience and integration into European police structures. The answer to the parliamentary question shows how closely the German police accompanied the development of the “Special Police” in this way.
Since 2006, the Croatian units have been trained by German police forces, led by state police forces from Lower Saxony and Berlin, some of which have carried out several measures and mutual visits each year. Among the dozens of training courses are seminars on “Strategies for Situation Management of Major Operations” or “Observation of Football Operations”.
In Hamburg, the “Special Police” also observed police tactics at the G20 summit. Under the then mayor Olaf Scholz ( Social Democratic Party), the police had thwarted registered mass protests and had demonstrably used violence on a large scale during the event. “There was no police violence,” the current Chancellor claimed at the time.
129 officers for Frontex operations
German authorities have sent special personnel to the capital Zagreb to coordinate cooperation with the Croatian police. The Federal Police station a liaison officer there, and during the tourist season a “Border Police Support Force Abroad” is added in Split. The Federal Criminal Police Office and the Customs Administration have also each seconded a coordinator to Croatia.
In the answer, the German government mentions further plans for training measures in Croatia, including mutual observation of police officers and a “strategic exchange” with the “Special Police” on the topics of “service dogs” or “women in leadership functions”. The German Federal Criminal Police Office is planning an unspecified presentation on the topic of “Islamist-motivated terrorism/extremism”.
The EU border agency Frontex is also active in various missions at Croatian border crossings; aircraft leased by Frontex are furthermore monitoring the border to Bosnia and Herzegovina. The German Federal Police also participates in these missions. Since 2017, a total of 129 officers have been stationed in Croatia for Frontex.
Decision soon on final Schengen accession
“In view of the illegal rejections at the borders, it would be much more important to provide targeted training on the observance of human rights standards during police operations”, comments the Left Party politician Clara Bünger, who tabled the most recent question on Croatia, on the German assistance for the police build-up in Croatia. “For an announced paradigm shift, especially on the issue of refugee policy, I expect the German government to sharply reconsider its support measures”.
The EU Parliament is soon to vote on whether Croatia will become a full Schengen member after all. In the Council of the European Union, the member states have already given the green light. In the case of a positive vote, the country could apply the Schengen acquis from 1 January 2023.
Bünger rejects this under the current conditions. “The coalition of the current government has taken it upon itself to pay special attention to the observance of the rule of law and humanitarian standards when expanding the Schengen area,” explains the MP. “The fact that the German government has now waved through the EU Council that Croatia fulfils all formal requirements for the application of the entire agreement reveals a questionable understanding of the rule of law”.
Image: German Ambassador Robert Klinke and Croatian Police Chief Nikola Milina inspect a vehicle donated from Germany (Police Croatia).