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Rights court slams Croatia for illegal treatment of asylum seekers

The European Court of Human Rights found that Croatian police caused the death of a 6-year-old Afghan girl when they forced her family to return to Serbia via train tracks without hearing their claims for asylum. The girl died after she was struck by a freight train at night in 2017.

(CN) — The death of a 6-year-old Afghan girl struck by a freight train on a cold and dark November night in 2017 after her refugee family was allegedly deported back to Serbia by Croatian police made international headlines and helped expose the harsh treatment asylum seekers and illegal immigrants faced as they tried crossing into the European Union through the Balkans.

On Thursday, four years after the death of Madina Hussiny, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Croatia was guilty of unlawfully deporting the girl's family and failed to properly investigate her death.

The Strasbourg-based court also found Croatia violated the European Convention on Human Rights – which established the court in 1953 – in its treatment of the girl's family months later when they slipped back across the border from Serbia into Croatia and sought protection as refugees.

Croatian authorities were blasted for leaving the family languish in a detention center for more than two months and hindering their contact with a lawyer helping them gain asylum in the EU and investigate the girl's death.

“This is a satisfying verdict after huge, serious violations of the Hussiny family’s human rights,” Sanja Bezbradica, the lawyer for the family, told N1, a regional broadcaster, according to Balkan Insight.

“I hope Croatia will evaluate its conduct and act in accordance with the clear verdict of the European court since there is no statute of limitations for the prosecution of those who are responsible,” she added.

This is not the first time Croatia's treatment of asylum seekers has been declared inhumane. Indeed, the Strasbourg court noted in its ruling that human rights groups and Croatian, EU and United Nations investigators have found Croatia brutally mistreating asylum seekers and forcing them back into Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina without considering their claims for asylum. Under international law, a person's request for asylum must be heard.

Croatia has rejected those criticisms even as it reportedly continues to force asylum seekers off its border. Recently, Lighthouse Reports, a Dutch-based consortium of journalists, released video allegedly showing Croatian border agents striking asylum seekers and forcing them back from the border.

In its ruling, the court highlighted a 2018 report by the EU's Agency for Fundamental Rights that found asylum seekers were pushed back by Croatia on a “daily basis” and that authorities were accused of sometimes using excessive force.

The same report said several children suffered injuries, including a 17-year-old boy from Afghanistan who sustained a concussion and a broken arm. Also, two men drowned trying to cross the river Kupa between Croatia and Slovenia, the report said. Croatian police have been accused of confiscating mobile phones from asylum seekers and chasing them with dogs.

Croatian authorities also were accused of denying human rights investigators and lawyers access to immigrant detention centers and to police information concerning cases involving asylum seekers.

Massimo Morratti, the deputy director for Europe at Amnesty International, said the ruling “confirms consistent reports of widespread pushbacks and abuse by the Croatian police repeatedly denied by Croatian authorities.”

In recent statements, Croatia's interior ministry has lashed out at news outlets and humanitarian groups alleging mistreatment of asylum seekers. The government calls the reports “unfounded.”

It says it is protecting its borders from illegal immigration and that those crossing its borders are mostly young men from Muslim countries seeking to reach other countries, such as Austria, Germany and Italy.

“We do not tolerate any violence in border protection, nor is it part of our procedures,” the ministry said in a September statement. It said it promptly investigates allegations of wrongdoing by border police.

The ministry did not immediately reply to a request for comment about Thursday's ruling and it did not issue a statement.

In the case of Hussiny, Croatian police rejected that they had any role in her death.

Hussiny's family said the girl and other family members, including her mother, crossed into Croatia and were stopped by police after they had been walking for several hours. They were then put into a van, taken to the border and told to return to Serbia along train tracks at night and in the cold, according to the Afghan family. A freight town driver testified that he sounded the horn when he saw the group walking along the tracks but that the girl did not move and was struck.

Croatian police offered a different version of events and claimed the family had not crossed the border. Instead, Croatian police said they turned the family back at the border crossing using sirens and lights and that Hussiny was struck by a train as she walked away from the border along with her family.

The Strasbourg court ordered Croatia to pay the family 40,000 euros (about $45,000) in damages.

Croatia is not alone in facing accusations that it mistreats asylum seekers and unlawfully denies them a chance for seek protection. Greece, Slovenia, Spain and Italy – among other EU nations – have been accused of similar border tactics.

In recent months, a crisis on the border of Poland and neighboring Baltic countries has erupted with thousands of asylum seekers trying to cross into the EU. The asylum seekers allegedly were lured into Belarus as part of a plan by Minsk to attack the EU in retaliation for sanctions and its support of an opposition movement seeking to bring down the authoritarian regime of President Alexander Lukashenko.

In stopping the asylum seekers, Polish police and soldiers have forced the asylum seekers back from razor wire fences along the border by using water cannons and tear gas. Human rights advocates see Poland's methods as inhumane and a violation of human rights law.

“Today’s ruling sends a clear message to other European governments that pushbacks, collective expulsions and denying people the opportunity to seek asylum are violations of the European Convention on Human Rights,” said Morratti with the Amnesty International. “With asylum seekers currently stranded at borders in freezing temperatures, authorities in Poland, Lithuania and Latvia should take note.”

While the rights court has tended to be critical of the harsh treatment of asylum seekers, in February 2020 it found nothing wrong with Spain's rejection en masse of large groups of asylum seekers who try to break into two Spanish enclaves in Morocco.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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