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Asylum Seekers: Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina

Volume 807: debated on Wednesday 18 November 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of reports about the treatment of migrants and asylum seekers at the border of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina; and what representations they plan to make to the government of Croatia about such reports.

My Lords, we regularly engage with Croatia, its neighbours and other international partners on challenges posed by irregular and illegal migration. We are committed to the principle that asylum seekers are entitled to decent, humane and fair treatment. We remain concerned about allegations of mistreatment of people at the border. Our embassy in Zagreb has raised these allegations with senior representatives and the offices of the president and the Government, highlighting the recommendation of the Croatian ombudswoman for an independent investigation.

I thank my noble friend for his Answer. It is appalling to see migrants shifted like cattle from Italy to Slovenia to Croatia, where alleged systemic violence and abuse by the Croatian border police eventually pushes them out of the EU into Bosnia. It is a vital national interest to work with the EU member states to ensure that migrants and asylum seekers are treated humanely, but, most of all, to address the root causes of the migration crisis. With that in mind, does my noble friend agree that it would be utterly counterproductive to water down our commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI on development assistance? If other countries follow the UK’s example, we could see a race to the bottom in reducing development aid that will lead only to more desperate refugees on the move and more illegal migration.

My noble friend was absolutely right to set out at the beginning that people must be treated as human beings and with respect and dignity at all stages; that is something that Her Majesty’s Government reinforce forcefully. On her point about aid, we are also very generous. We have provided £500,000 through our own Conflict, Stability and Security Fund to support communities and authorities in Bosnia-Herzegovina hosting migrants and refugees.

My Lords, the Minister has referred to the abuses of refugees and migrants on the Croatian border. Will the Government make representations to the European Commission, which has been using a small fund to keep under surveillance abuses at the border—a fund to which we contributed when we were a member of the EU? Will we please raise this issue internationally, as widely as possible? These abuses are quite shocking.

Yes, my Lords, we make these representations both bilaterally with the countries involved and through multilateral organisations—not just the EU but the International Organization for Migration, the UNHCR and other fora. The European Commission and the European Parliament are both taking an increasingly involved approach to this issue, which is welcome. Indeed, as part of the Croatian EU presidency in the first half of this year, there was a ministerial conference on the challenges of illegal migration, which is important in this regard.

Surely these appalling allegations show that the flow of illegal immigration across the European continent is certainly not good for the migrants concerned, nor the countries through which they pass. Does my noble friend agree that it shows the wisdom of the Government’s policy of seeking to deter and discourage such illegal movement in the first place and trying to deal with the problem closer to home?

My noble friend is entirely right. That is why Her Majesty’s Government have a whole-of-route approach, working, as he says, to deter people from making these dangerous and unnecessary journeys in the first place, and making sure that our protection is targeted at those people who most need it in areas of conflict.

My Lords, what assistance, including protection against violence and family planning, is being provided for women and girls, who are particularly vulnerable in these circumstances? Will the UK have access to EU information on human traffickers who exploit such migrants after 31 December?

My Lords, we work with the UNFPA and the International Organization for Migration on just these issues, and we have seen some positive results from that work. Our aid is now helping 55 public health centres in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and more than 600 service providers, decision-makers and leaders from civil society.

My Lords, could my noble friend inform the House of the Government’s understanding of the Bosnian Government’s capability and capacity to support migrants who have been turned into a political football by Italy, Slovenia and Croatia? What impact is such behaviour by EU states breaching their legal obligations towards refugees having on the political stability of Bosnia-Herzegovina?

My noble friend is right—as I said, we want people to be treated with the respect and dignity that should be accorded to our fellow humans, not as political footballs, as she says. Along with our other international partners, the UK has urged Bosnian politicians to work together to address these challenges. We are working with the authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, providing £500,000 of aid through the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund, and engaging at all levels, including with the Minister of Security in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

My Lords, what additional endeavour can we apply to win the peace by creating an environment so as to stem the flow of those in need, given that much of the inward immigrant flow is as a direct—and indirect, in the case of sanctions—consequence of western intervention? In addressing the question in hand, should the UK lead by example by not being overly critical of the humanitarian challenges at the Croatia-Bosnia-Herzegovina border when we draw censure in reacting to the situation in the channel?

My Lords, the noble Viscount is right: we need to address these problems at source. That is why schemes such as our vulnerable persons relocation scheme are working in areas of conflict to try to make sure that our help and protection is offered to those who need it, and to deter people from making dangerous journeys, whether that is across the European continent or, as he says, across the English Channel.

My Lords, can I return to the issue that the Minister raised in his original response, about an independent assessment of these claims? The UNCHR is backing this. In raising this with the Croatian Government, what sort of response have the Government received and how are we pursuing this matter?

My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right to talk about the work of the UN special rapporteurs, which followed the arrest of two Croatian police officers this summer. The UN has urged the country to immediately and thoroughly investigate these allegations, and we have been impressing this on the Croatian authorities at every level as well, to reinforce that important point.

My Lords, in 2016, Amnesty International found that the British people were the second most welcoming of refugees in the world, with 83% saying they would welcome them in their household and neighbourhood. Does the Minister think the British people are deeply concerned about reports of the abuses on the Croatia-Bosnia-Herzegovina border? Does he not think that people want the Government to do more to secure safe, orderly routes for some of these refugees to come to the UK?

My Lords, yes, I think the British people do take great concern at the reports we have seen, and we have seen that in questions from all corners of your Lordships’ House today. This is a matter of human dignity. That is a point that Her Majesty’s Government are making to the Croatian Government and others, and we are working with international organisations to reinforce that.

Does my noble friend agree that these border tensions only increase the serious problems of gender-based violence and human trafficking? What can Her Majesty’s Government do to assist with this problem at the moment?

My noble friend is entirely right, and I commend his work in this area. Our work in countering gender-based violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina and more widely has had a significant impact. We have seen positive improvements, for instance, in the collection of evidence, the protection of witnesses, providing safe spaces for people to testify and making sure that survivors and victims are treated with the respect that they deserve.

My Lords, across Europe, including in Britain, unaccompanied migrant children are being abused and trafficked, and are self-harming. A year ago, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe agreed that member states should ensure they provide effective care for unaccompanied children. British Ministers were at that meeting. Can the Minister tell the House what the Government are doing to protect these children in the United Kingdom?

My Lords, we are working to ensure the safety and dignity of migrants of every age—we had discussions on asylum-seeking children as part of the immigration Bill, which we debated recently in your Lordships’ House—work that we are continuing on our own and through international organisations, such as those I have mentioned.