Mr. Zoran Milanović
Trg Sv. Marka 2, 10 000 Zagreb
June 28, 2013
Re: Improving Human Rights Protection Should Continue After Accession
Dear Prime Minister Milanović,
I am writing to ask you to ensure that the Croatian government continues to improve its protection of human rights and that its legal framework and practices are in accordance with Croatia’s international and regional human rights obligations.
Croatia’s accession to the EU includes assuming the obligation to respect the principles of human dignity, democracy, and human rights as enshrined in the EU Treaty and further outlined in the legally binding Charter of Fundamental Rights.[i] The government should use the formal accession as an opportunity to further strengthen the protection of human rights in several areas of concern and implement necessary measures to improve legislation and practices.
Human Rights Watch visited Croatia in June, meeting with civil society and government representatives, as well as diplomats. We took the opportunity during our visit to follow up on human rights issues that have been long-standing concerns for Human Rights Watch in Croatia. Our visit confirmed a number of human rights issues that require urgent attention from the Croatian authorities.
The rights of people with mental or intellectual disabilities are still seriously undermined by the limited progress by the government towards deinstitutionalization. In a 2010 report, Once You Enter, You Never Leave, Human Rights Watch documented the plight of the more than 9,000 persons with intellectual or mental disabilities living in institutions in Croatia and the lack of community based programs for housing and support.[ii]
Despite the adoption in March 2011 of a Plan for Deinstitutionalization and Transformation of Social Welfare Homes (also known as the ‘Master Plan’) for the deinstitutionalization of persons with intellectual or mental disabilities between 2011 and 2018, limited progress has been made towards implementing it. The May 2013 contract between the Ministry of Social Policy and Youth and the Open Society Foundations aiming to deinstitutionalize two of the largest institutions in Croatia over the next five years, benefitting approximately 400 people, is welcome. However, the project does not encompass the majority of the 9,000 persons with intellectual or mental disabilities who are still living in institutions.
At this writing, Human Rights Watch is not aware of other meaningful community based living programs being implemented. The placing of people with intellectual or mental disabilities in so-called family homes, run by private actors without adequate qualifications and training with up to 20 persons, is not a meaningful effort of deinstitutionalization. Such “family homes” constitute another form of institutionalization and are a distraction from efforts to support community based living.
Human Rights Watch welcomes the December 2012 amendment to the electoral law, which allows people with disabilities to vote. But restricted legal capacity for persons with intellectual or mental disabilities remains a concern. Of 18,000 people under legal guardianship, 16,000 are under plenary (full) guardianship. A proposed amendment to the Family Act currently tabled for parliamentary debate aims to remove full guardianship. The amendment, however, does not address the fact that courts retain the power to restrict legal capacity in multiple areas of a person’s life that, in individual cases, may amount to the complete deprivation of legal capacity rather than ensuring access to support in order to make decisions, as required by the Convention for the Right of Persons with Disabilities.
Among the first countries to ratify the Convention for the Right of Persons with Disabilities, which guarantees the right to live in the community, Croatia should set an example in ensuring that persons with intellectual or mental disabilities living in closed institutions without further delay are transferred into community based living solutions. The government should adopt an operational plan with clear deadlines for the transformation of institutions to community based living programs, including allocating the needed financial resources. The government should further put in place judicial safeguards to prevent persons with intellectual or mental disabilities from being de facto deprived of full legal capacity.
Overcrowding in reception facilities for asylum seekers remains a problem due to the increase in asylum seekers in recent years. Civil society organizations anticipate that the number of asylum seekers will further increase once Croatia joins the EU. In this context, it is notable that Croatia will upon accession be bound by the Dublin Regulation, which requires the state to process all asylum applicants in Croatia and to accept the return from other EU countries of asylum seekers who transited the country.
The Center for Peace Studies told Human Rights Watch that when staff in December 2012 visited the reception center in Kutina, with capacity to accommodate 100 persons, they counted more than 300 persons. According to the Center for Peace Studies, a number of asylum seekers are held in closed detention centers designated for irregular immigrants. This is for example the case in the Ježevo Center, a closed detention facility for irregular immigrants approximately 30 km from Zagreb, where the Center for Peace Studies on April 24 counted 93 irregular immigrants and 75 asylum seekers. Detention of asylum seekers should be a last resort, for the shortest time possible and only where alternatives have been shown not to be practicable. Under EU law, being an asylum seeker is not sufficient ground to warrant detention.[iii]
Specialized systems for protection of unaccompanied migrant children (children travelling without parents or guardians) remain inadequate. While data on the number of unaccompanied migrant children is unreliable, according to a 2010 UNHCR report, approximately 200 unaccompanied migrant children were registered in Croatia. International law requires that countries assign unaccompanied children guardians in order to protect their interests in legal proceedings and help the child with his basic needs, including shelter and school. Human Rights Watch was told by local organizations that guardians appointed to unaccompanied migrant children lack necessary training on how to act in the best interests of the child. We were also told that criteria for appointing such guardians are unclear and that appointed guardians often are employees in social care centers located in the south and east of Croatia. Unaccompanied migrant children, however, are accommodated in Zagreb and appointed guardians have limited contact with the children in person. No new guardians have been appointed in Zagreb despite the growing numbers of unaccompanied migrant children there. The system puts this particularly vulnerable group of persons at risk of becoming victims of different criminal acts, such as trafficking and forced labor, and may hamper their access to international protection.
The accommodation of unaccompanied migrant children does not meet international standards of reception and protection. The Center for Peace Studies told Human Rights Watch that unaccompanied migrant children below 16 years of age are placed in the Residential Home for the Raising of Children and Young People in Zagreb, a facility that primarily houses children with behavioral problems. Unaccompanied minors, 16 years and above, are placed in the Kutina reception center, which is designated for adult asylum seekers. The Ministry of Social Policy and Youth told Human Rights Watch that by the end of 2014, a reception center for unaccompanied minors will be built adjacent to the Ježevo detention center for irregular migrants. The location of the planned reception center is approximately 30 km from Zagreb with no immediate access to kindergartens or schools. EU standards for protection of unaccompanied migrant children state that minors should be kept separated from adults, in adequate accommodation facilities, and only in exceptional circumstances be subject to detention.[iv] Placing unaccompanied migrant children in facilities for children with special needs or in reception centers for adults is not compatible with those standards.
The inadequate system of appointing guardians and the general failure to provide specialized protection for unaccompanied migrant children run contrary to Croatia’s human rights obligations, including under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child with the obligations delineated in the Committee on the Rights of the Child’s General Comment No. 6,[v] and the EU Action Plan on Unaccompanied Minors. The latter obliges EU member states to set high standards of reception, protection, and integration of unaccompanied minors with the view of the best interest of the child.[vi] The Croatian government should take immediate steps to ensure that the particularly vulnerable category of unaccompanied migrant children receives specialized protection, which should include adequate reception facilities, guardians with needed competence present in the same locality as the minors, and access to education.
Vulnerable minorities continue to face discrimination. The Roma minority face difficulties in accessing the most basic state services. According to the UNHCR, there are approximately 500 stateless Roma in Croatia and another 1,000 Roma at risk of statelessness. Stateless Roma have difficulties providing the necessary documents to register as Croatian citizens, which also prevents them from accessing state services such as health care, social assistance, or education. While there is a lack of statistics, UNHCR and the Office of Human Rights and National Minorities estimate that the problem is widespread.
The Serb minority continues to face obstacles in relation to the right to housing. In particular Serbs who were stripped of tenancy rights during the war face ongoing difficulties benefitting from the 2010 government program that permits the purchase of property at below market rates because of the cost of making an application and cumbersome administrative procedures. Local human rights organizations and UNHCR told Human Rights Watch that although properties are offered for sale at below market rates, the cost is often three to four times higher than the market value of the property at the time they lost the right to it.
The government should take immediate steps to provide access to state services to everyone in Croatia irrespective of status, and take positive steps to provide pathways to citizenship for stateless people. The government should also take steps to facilitate meaningful access to the purchase of property for Serb former tenancy right holders, including by reviewing the rate at which the property is offered for sale and streamlining the process.
Thank you for your attention to these important matters.
Europe and Central Asia Division
Human Rights Watch
[i] Article 2 of the Treaty of the European Union, http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=OJ:C:2010:083:0013:0046:en:PDF, (accessed June 14, 2013). Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, http://www.europarl.europa.eu/charter/pdf/text_en.pdf, (accessed June 14, 2013).
[ii] Human Rights Watch, Once You Enter, You Never Leave – Deinstitutionalization of Persons with Intellectual or Mental Disabilities in Croatia, https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/croatia0910webwcover.pdf, (accessed June 14, 2013).
[iii] Council Directive 2005/85/EC of 1 December 2005 on minimum standards on procedures in Member States for granting and withdrawing refugee status, http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=OJ:L:2005:326:0013:0034:EN:PDF, (accessed June 18, 2013).
[iv] Action Plan on Unaccompanied Minors (2010-2014), http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=COM:2010:0213:FIN:EN:PDF, (accessed June 14, 2013).
[v] Article 22, Convention on the Rights of the Child, http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CRC.aspx, (accessed June 12, 2013). General Comment No. 6 (2005), Treatment of Unaccompanied and Separated Children Outside Their Country of Origin, http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/crc/docs/GC6.pdf, (accessed June 20, 2013).
[vi] Action Plan on Unaccompanied Minors (2010-2014), http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=COM:2010:0213:FIN:EN:PDF, (accessed June 14, 2013).