(Brussels) – Croatia’s European Union (EU) accession on July 1 is an opportunity for the government to show its commitment to safeguard human rights and to properly address outstanding abuses in the country, Human Rights Watch said today in an open letter to the Croatian prime minister, Zoran Milanović.
During a visit to Croatia in June, Human Rights Watch documented a number of issues that require the government’s immediate attention, including the institutionalization of people with mental or intellectual disabilities, overcrowding in reception centers for asylum seekers and refugees, lack of special protection for unaccompanied migrant children, and discrimination against ethnic Serbs and Roma.
“It’s clear Croatia still has much more work to do to bring its human rights protection up to par with EU standards,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Zagreb should see the accession as an incentive to further improve rights protection, rather than a signal to slow down.”
The 28th EU member state, Croatia became an official EU candidate in 2004, finished accession negotiations on June 30, 2011, and signed the EU Treaty on December 9, 2011. As part of this process, Croatia had to bring its laws and practices in line with EU standards across 35 different areas (known as “chapters”), including judiciary and fundamental rights (chapter 23), and justice, freedom, and security (chapter 24).
But being formally admitted to the Union does not mean Croatia is meeting all its human rights obligations under EU law, Human Rights Watch said.
A 2010 Human Rights Watch report, “Once You Enter, You Never Leave.“ documented the plight of more than 9,000 people with intellectual or mental disabilities still living in institutions in Croatia, and the lack of community based programs for housing and support. Despite recent action to deinstitutionalize two centers benefitting some 400 people, no comprehensive efforts have been made to address the precarious situation of thousands of others still inside institutions.
Overcrowding in reception centers for asylum seekers remains a problem, and, with an anticipated rise in asylum seekers once Croatia becomes an external border of the EU, the government should increase the number of centers accordingly. Hundreds of unaccompanied migrant children lack the specialized protection required by international law, and are consequently at risk of becoming victims of crimes such as trafficking and forced labor.
Considerable efforts are also needed to protect the rights of ethnic Serbs and Roma. People who were stripped of tenancy rights during the war, a majority of whom are Serbs, continue to face difficulties in benefitting from a program that permits the purchase of property at below market rates, due to the onerous costs of applications and cumbersome administrative procedures. Moreover, due to a lack of personal documents, hundreds of Roma find it difficult if not impossible to access basic state services, such as health care, social assistance, and education.
The government needs to address these issues urgently, Human Rights Watch said. This includes creating community based living solutions for people with mental or intellectual disabilities, increasing the number of reception centers for asylum seekers and refugees, and establishing a specialized protection system for unaccompanied migrant children. The government should also facilitate access to the purchase of property for Serbs who formerly held tenancy rights, facilitate acquiring citizenship for stateless Roma, and ensure access to state services to everyone in Croatia, irrespective of status.
For its part, the EU also has a responsibility to ensure that all 28 member states keep their domestic laws and practices in line with the EU standards, including the Charter of Fundamental Rights, and it should take robust action against any member states who fail to do so.
“The EU should closely monitor human rights abuses inside the borders of the Union and react vigorously if member states fail to respect the fundamental principles of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law which govern the EU,” Williamson said. “The European Parliament, the European Commission, and the Council of the European Union also have a role to play, and jointly share a responsibility to properly respond to failures by member states to meet those obligations.”