When the Russian invasion of Ukraine began on February 24th, 2022, numerous European countries opened their borders and offered their welcome to Ukrainians displaced by the conflict. Hungary issued a regulation allowing entry to anyone coming from Ukraine (Hungary Today, 2022), Poland has received over two million refugees as of March 22nd (UNHCR, 2022), and Croatia planned on securing up to 17,000 places for refugees, a significant upscale from the until then available 3500 (Trkanjec, 2022). All these responses are a far cry from the responses other displaced people have received in the same countries in the past. Hungary, during the 2015 refugee crisis, built fences on its borders to keep out refugees (Amnesty International, 2015). Even more recently, anti-immigration policies were one of the cornerstones of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s re-election campaign (AP, 2022). The response to refugees in Croatia is, as will be shown, similarly inconsistent.
Croatia and refugees from the Middle East
One of the main migration routes during the 2015 refugee crisis in Europe was the Western Balkan one – migrants would move through Turkey and Greece, then northward through Serbia towards the EU, initially mainly to Hungary (Oruc et al., 2020). In mid-2015, when Hungary started to construct a fence on its border with Serbia, the migrant flow moved towards Croatia, either directly from Serbia or, later on, through Bosnia and Herzegovina (Oruc et al., 2020). Even though it is an EU member country, Croatia was not the main destination for most refugees. Being a very homogenous country with a lack of any concrete integration programme, a language learning programme used only on a case-by-case basis, and with most integration initiatives limited to the local level, in small communities where the small number of refugees settled in Croatia, the number of refugees who decided to stay in Croatia was fairly low (Brenner, 2015; European Commission, n.d.).
The initial response to the refugees echoed that of the rest of the European Union; migrants were welcomed, support was guaranteed, parallels were drawn between those displaced now and the thousands of Croats who themselves had to flee 30 years ago during the Yugoslav wars (Šelo Šabić & Borić, 2016). That rhetoric would not last for long. The uncoordinated flow of migrants on the route led to various border shutdowns between Croatia and Serbia and Slovenia (Oruc et al., 2020). After an initial open-door policy in late 2015, Croatia promptly closed its border in fear of becoming ‘a migrant hotspot’ (BBC, 2015). Over 650,000 refugees passed through Croatia in the period from 2015 to March of 2016 (Šelo Šabić & Borić, 2016). The media coverage through that period shifted from one of acceptance to that of fear, as refugees were increasingly seen as security threats (Šelo Šabić & Borić, 2016). In 2017, reports of often violent pushbacks of migrants back into Serbia surfaced (HRW, 2017). Over 3000 refugees were reportedly pushed back in 2017, and the abuse at the hands of Croatian police continued into the following years (ANSA, 2018; Gadzo, 2018).
The allegations culminated in 2020 when the Danish Refugee Council published several testimonies collected from migrants who attempted to cross from Bosnia and Herzegovina to Croatia (Tondo, 2020). Beatings with batons, sexual abuse, and theft are some of the acts allegedly committed by Croatian police in EU-funded border operations (Tondo, 2020; Amnesty International, 2020). The allegations were initially dismissed by authorities as efforts to tarnish Croatia’s reputation, and an EU delegation was blocked from visiting the border region to assess the conditions (ECRE, 2021). However, a report released by the Council of Europe’s Committee on Prevention of Torture (CPT) confirmed the allegations and strongly condemned Croatian authorities for failing to appropriately investigate the allegations, while human rights groups also blamed the EU for not responding or investigating abuse allegations possibly funded by its own funds (Council of Europe, 2021; Amnesty International, 2021). Despite this condemnation, pushbacks of migrants from the Middle East continued in what seems to be an officially sanctioned policy, as a leaked e-mail from October of 2021 sent by one police chief suggests (Matijanić, 2022).
Croatia and refugees from Ukraine
The response to Ukrainian refugees mirrors the initial response to those from the Middle East, with parallels drawn between Croatia’s own experiences with displacement and the emphasis placed on the need for humane reception (Vulić, 2022). By March 24th, over 9000 refugees had entered Croatia, a large number of who were hosted in private houses and not in official shelters (Hina, 2022). There is no talk of any entry restrictions for Ukrainian refugees, or even for barriers to a long-term stay in the country. On the contrary, there are great efforts made on behalf of individual citizens as well as governments to ensure that the refugees can receive employment in Croatia (Pilić, 2022). Moreover, one county announced that land would be given to those refugees who want to work in agriculture, something which refugees from the Middle East were not offered (Pilić, 2022).
Ukrainian refugees are in general seen as more ‘compatible’ for integration in Croatia; they are seen as culturally similar, the languages are alike which makes learning Croatian easier, and all this makes them easier to integrate into Croatian society than other refugees (Galić, 2022). The concerns were not of security threats, but of how easily these new refugees could join the workforce, and potentially solve Croatia’s issue of a lack of workers, particularly in the tourism, hospitality, and construction sectors (Galić, 2022). These refugees, similar to the Croats by language and culture are thus more acceptable for long-term integration than the unfamiliar refugees from the Middle East. That this ‘unfamiliarity’ of refugees from the Middle East might come from xenophobic and racist beliefs is implied here, and may best be showcased in the words of British journalist Daniel Hannan, who wrote of Ukrainian refugees:
“They seem so like us. That is what makes it so shocking. Its people watch Netflix and have Instagram accounts (…) War is no longer something visited upon impoverished and remote populations.” (2022) .
The implication here is that war is not something that happens to ‘us’ in the civilized world – these refugees deserve the help because if it could happen to them, it could happen to ‘us’ too. The response in Croatia seems to somewhat follow this line of thinking, prioritising Ukrainian refugees and for the most part ignoring those from Syria or Afghanistan, forgetting all the while that the war that ravaged Yugoslavia 30 years ago, resulting in the displacement of thousands, similarly happened in the heart of Europe. Ukrainian refugees are, in the vein of that rhetoric, deserving of the help while those from the Middle East are merely economic or illegal migrants, as one Croatian politician described them, coming from places where war is to be expected (Grakalić, 2022). The main issue with the differing responses is not, therefore, that Ukrainian refugees are receiving much-needed help and support in a time of need. It is that other refugees fleeing from war and hardship do not receive the same treatment.
The difference in responses is, as was mentioned at the beginning, not confined to Croatia. Croatia is only one example of the double standards according to which different groups of refugees are treated. In January of 2022, Poland began constructing a border wall along its border with Belarus to keep out refugees from the Middle East (Al Jazeera, 2022). Even as refugees from Ukraine receive housing and employment, refugees from the Middle East are stranded in Poland’s forested border region, left to brave the harsh winter conditions (Ciobanu, 2022). Even refugees from Ukraine, third-country nationals who had to flee just like native Ukrainians, are not given treated equally (Tondo, 2022).
The efforts made to ensure Ukrainian refugees are safe and welcome in Croatia and other European countries are commendable. However, the hypocrisy of how they are treated compared to refugees from the Middle East is a stain on these efforts. In Croatia, where reports of violence and illegal pushbacks are still fresh, more should be done to rectify and change course on the treatment of refugees, to ensure that all those who are forced to flee their homes due to conflict and violence are given the same empathy and care.