|"Croatia's entry into to the EU means that it may become a more frequently used entry point into the EU by asylum seekers and other forced migrants. The EU has to invest resources now to prevent the Croatian asylum system from collapsing like it has in Greece," said Mr. Benedict Coleridge, author of the report.|
(Brussels) July 3, 2013 — The asylum system in Croatia is at the limit of its capacity, and is having trouble dealing with higher numbers of asylum seekers and migrants as it gets ready to join the EU. This is according to a new report by JRS Europe: From Back Door To Front Door: Forced migration routes through Macedonia to Croatia. The report is based on interviews with forced migrants in Zagreb, Croatia, and in Skopje and Lojane, Macedonia.
Croatia's asylum system is already strained with a 50% increase in asylum seekers from 2011 to 2012. The Porin reception centre for asylum seekers, visited by JRS Europe, is a former hotel where residents are vulnerable to violent outbreaks due to high levels of stress and frustration. Asylum seekers lack information about asylum procedures, and once their application is submitted most wait for undefined periods of time with no update on the status of their claim.
"Croatia's entry into to the EU means that it may become a more frequently used entry point into the EU by asylum seekers and other forced migrants", says Mr Benedict Coleridge, author of the report. "The EU has to invest resources now to prevent the Croatian asylum system from collapsing like it has in Greece," he said.
Samuel* had no idea Croatia even existed prior to being returned there from Hungary. "I did not know this country. I had never heard of Croatia before," he said.
He had waited seven months before receiving a negative decision on his asylum application. He did not receive any information about Croatia's asylum procedures and what to expect. After receiving his rejection, he applied for asylum anew. By the time JRS Europe interviewed him, Samuel had been living in the reception centre for nearly a year and a half.
The challenges in Croatia are exacerbated by the poor conditions JRS found for forced migrants in Macedonia, a regional neighbor. The living conditions in the Vizbegovo reception center, near the capital Skopje, are in an abysmal state.
"During our visit the residential facility was extremely dirty with garbage piling up in the corridors. Young children live in too close proximity to other residents in improvised rooms that are not fit for children or families. The overall condition of the centre is sub-standard," says Mr Coleridge.
Macedonia's asylum procedures are equally in disarray. Asylum claims are processed slowly, with asylum seekers getting little information and legal advice. The lack of interpretation means that the authorities cannot adequately communicate with many of the asylum seekers in their care.
"For most migrants, Macedonia is a country of transit rather than a final destination," said Mr Coleridge. "The fact that the Macedonian authorities have not granted any asylum claims in 2011 reinforces this trend, as do the poor conditions in the Vizbegovo reception center."
The town of Lojane is a case in point. Located just 600m from the Serbian border, and about 75km northeast of Skopje, Lojane is a temporary staging area for hundreds of migrants who hope to travel through Serbia on foot to Hungary and then to Austria. The Macedonian authorities are not visibly present and even the most basic services are not provided, meaning that many migrants become destitute and homeless.
"The journey that forced migrants take across the Balkans is hazardous, and forms only one part of a much larger journey from countries like Afghanistan and Iran", says Mr Coleridge. "As Macedonia is unsafe they move onward to Croatia, who focuses on increasing their border security rather than providing safe and accessible conditions for people to apply for asylum," Mr Coleridge said.
Poor protection capacities in Macedonia, together with a poorly equipped asylum system in Croatia, poses negative consequences for the entire EU asylum system. "The Balkans should be considered as an integrated whole," said Mr Coleridge. "An adverse situation in one country will impact its regional neighbors."
The situation in Greece has already had implications for the rest of the region. Almost all of the forced migrants interviewed by JRS Europe in Macedonia had spent time in Greece before moving onward through the Balkans.
"If Macedonia's asylum system does not function, then Croatia will be placed under greater strain. If Croatia cannot cope with migrants coming through the Balkans, then it will not be able to cope with the raft of EU asylum laws that it will have to adopt as a new member of the EU," said Mr Stefan Kessler, JRS Europe's Senior Policy Officer.
One such law is the Dublin Regulation, a key component of the EU asylum system that obliges asylum seekers to submit their application in the first EU country to which they arrived. Recent JRS Europe research shows that the Dublin Regulation impedes people's access to asylum procedures because they are frequently sent to EU countries with weak asylum systems.
"It is hard to see how Croatia's asylum system in its current state will be able to deal with asylum seekers transferred to it from other EU countries,"argues Mr Kessler. "Its system is already creaking under the weight of new arrivals of asylum seekers and forced migrants."
In its report, JRS Europe urges the European Commission in particular to provide immediate assistance to Croatia so that it can properly implement the EU asylum framework. Moreover, JRS Europe recommends that member states use caution when transferring asylum seekers to Croatia under the Dublin Regulation, especially so long as Croatia's capacities remain insufficient for dealing with higher numbers of asylum claims. Additional EU assistance should be given to Macedonia to improve its asylum and reception system to prevent it from becoming a destabilising element in the Balkans region.
*Not his real name.
• JRS is a global Catholic non-governmental organization based in over 50 countries worldwide, with a mission to accompany, serve and advocate for refugees and forced migrants. In Europe, JRS is present in 12 EU countries as well as in Croatia, Macedonia, Kosovo, Morocco and Ukraine.
• In Croatia, JRS offers educational services and emergency aid to forced migrants in the Kutina reception centre in Zagreb.
• In Macedonia, JRS offers social work services and medical support to residents of the Vizbegovo reception centre, near Skopje.
See the JRS Europe report, Protection Interrupted, published in June 2013, to learn more about the impact of the Dublin Regulation on asylum seekers' fundamental rights.
Jesuit Refugee Service Europe