Zagreb reports sharp increase in illegal migration
Since Croatia joined the Schengen Zone in January 2023, there has been a significant surge in illegal migration. Over 54,500 individuals have crossed the Croatian border illicitly so far this year. Migrants attempt to reach Europe by land via the Balkans route, driven by the desire to escape poverty and conflict in regions such as Africa, Central Asia, and the Middle East.
Having become a part of the Schengen area in 2023, Croatia now boasts the European Union’s longest external land border, spanning 1,350 kilometres. Since Zagreb’s integration into the Schengen zone, there has been a striking 140% year-on-year increase in illegal migration. The Croatian border has gained notoriety as one of the favoured routes on the western Balkan Route, commonly used by migrants to enter Europe. The western Balkan Route traverses Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and Slovenia, where routes for further possible destinations split either to Italy or to the north to Austria and Germany.
One of the Croatian police officials commented on the game-changing aspect of being inside Schengen: “Previously, they went to Slovenia, a Schengen member, and sought asylum there because they could no longer be returned to a country outside of Schengen. Now that Croatia is in Schengen, they don’t need to wait to arrive in Slovenia, so they’re asking for asylum here.” Despite the increase in illegal migration, Interior Minister Davor Božinović asserts that the situation is well-managed. The minister further emphasizes that Zagreb has not recorded any significant upsurge in criminal or misdemeanour offences.
Croatian authorities face criticism throughout Europe for their handling of illegal migration. The Croatian police are frequently accused of conducting “pushbacks,” forcibly returning potential asylum seekers beyond the European Union’s external borders, particularly to Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia, often involving the use of violence. Notably, even children are among those pushed back across the border. Migrants intercepted by the police are routinely compelled to return to Bosnia on foot without a formal transfer to Bosnian authorities. There have been more than 1,700 cases of illegal expulsions this year. The country’s borders with Bosnia and Serbia are heavily patrolled, with 6,700 police personnel assigned to guard and patrol these areas.
Police officers also engage in other abuses, such as denial of access to asylum, theft and damage of personal property, physical violence, and degrading treatment. The Croatian government denies such behaviour. Moreover, Zagreb fails to provide accommodation for asylum seekers while their requests for refugee status are processed. The government claims that there has been a 700% increase in asylum applications in the country. There has also been a rise in the apprehension of traffickers, with local law enforcement reporting a total of 850 arrests so far this year.
Zagreb is considering ways to reduce the burden on police stations where migrants can apply for international protection. The government’s plan is to build a large registration centre in the village of Krnjak, south of the major town of Karlovac, on the site of an abandoned military training ground in order to help manage the influx.
Croatia is not the only country in the Balkan region experiencing a sharp increase in illegal migration. The volume of migrants entering Slovenia has nearly tripled in the first eight months of 2023 compared to the same period last year. While Ljubljana currently lacks immediate plans to intensify border controls in various areas, the police have heightened scrutiny along the most crucial sections of the border.