FECL 34 (May 1995):

TEMPORARY PROTECTION FOR BOSNIAN REFUGEES WITH CROATIAN PASSPORTS

On 5 May, the Swedish Government decided to grant temporary protection to Bosnian Croats and other holders of Croatian passports. The measure is valid until 1 December and will benefit between four and five thousand asylum-seekers. Most of the asylum-seekers affected are formally citizens of both Bosnia and Croatia.

The decision follows more than eight months of tug-of-war between the Government and the Immigration Authorities on the one hand and Swedish NGOs, Churches and the UNHCR on the other. The sometimes inflamed controversy turned on whether Croatia could be deemed a "safe country" for Bosnians with Croatian citizenship or not.

 

Croatia's "bogus citizens"

The actual root of the controversy around the Bosnian-Croatian refugees lies in the introduction of the visa obligation for Bosnian nationals by most western European countries, including Sweden, in summer 1993. As a result of this measure, thousands of Bosnian refugees trying to make their way to some western European host country, found themselves trapped in Croatia - which was already dealing with over 300,000 refugees and displaced persons. In this situation, the Croatian authorities made what they thought was a smart move: they generously issued large numbers of Croatian passports to Croatian and Muslim refugees from Bosnia, thereby enabling them to continue their journey to Sweden and other western European countries. Most western countries at that time did not require visa from Croatian nationals.

In October 1994, Adalbert Rebic, the Head of ODPR, Croatia's governmental agency for refugees, quite frankly admitted before a Swedish NGO delegation that Croatia's issue of passports to Bosnian refugees was a "goodwill gesture" aimed at improving the chances of Bosnians obtaining protection in another country. Indeed, Croatia never had any intention to grant full citizens' rights to the Bosnian holders of Croatian passports.

 

A new loophole

The effect of the Croatian passport trick was that, despite the visa barrier, Bosnian refugees continued to pour into Western Europe and, in particular, into Sweden via the Croatian loophole.

In response to this, the Swedish Government began to process applications of Bosnian-Croatian asylum seeker in "accelerated" summary procedures, enabling for the speedy deportation of rejectees to Croatia without awaiting appeals by the persons concerned. Sweden justified this practice by stressing that Croatia, as opposed to Bosnia, could be considered a "safe country" and should be expected to grant protection to its own citizens.

 

Croatia sends refugees back to Bosnia-Hercegovina

The controversy on the fate of the "bogus Croats" began in autumn 1994, when the Swedish sections of Amnesty International and "Save the Children", the Swedish Refugee Council, and the UNHCR claimed that Bosnian-Croatian refugees who had been forcibly returned to Croatia by Sweden were actually being sent back to Bosnia by the Croatian authorities.

In a hurried response to the NGO reports, the Government sent a delegation to Croatia which quickly came to the conclusion that Croatia was not forcing Bosnian-Croatian refugees to return to Bosnia, whereupon the Swedish immigration authorities decided to go on with the planned deportation of some 4,500 asylum Bosnian asylum-seekers to Croatia.

However, shortly afterwards, the Head of ODPR, Adalbert Rebic, made the following statement in a letter to Caritas Sweden: "Many Croatian refugees from Bosnia-Hercegovina have both Bosnian and Croatian passports; that means that according to our law they have the right to dual citizenship. Their domicile has often for centuries been Bosnia-Hercegovina. For that reason all Bosnian refugees (both Croat and Muslim) who are expelled from Sweden or other countries must return to Bosnia if they come from liberated areas [i.e. under Croatian control] in Bosnia-Hercegovina and from areas where no battles are taking place. Only those who come from disputed zones or zones occupied by Serbs can stay in Croatia. The Republic of Croatia, however much it would like to, cannot take care of all Bosnian refugees".

Despite this unequivocal information, the Swedish authorities continued to deport Bosnians with Croatian passports.

 

The fate of Croatia's "second class" citizens

In October 1994, an NGO-delegation made up of representatives of Caritas, the Church of Sweden and FARR (Swedish Coordination of Asylum Committees and Refugee Groups) went to Croatia and Bosnia. In both countries, the delegates met rejectees from Sweden who said that they had been given no choice by the Croatian authorities but to return to Bosnia. Indeed, Bosnian refugees with Croatian passports, do not - despite their formal citizenship - have the same rights as other Croatian citizens. Bosnian Croats who refuse to return to Bosnia are denied work permits, housing and health care. Only those housed by friends or relatives are tolerated in Croatia, without any legal status however. The report of the NGO delegation further referred to a still valid July 1994 decree of the ODPR in Croatia. According to the decree, refugees from Bosnia-Hercegovina returned by a third country and discovered within Croatian territory shall be sent to Hercegovina and be taken care of the ODPR office in Mostar.

 

NGOs and Churches demand halt on deportations

Consequently, the NGOs and Churches who had sent the delegation recommended a stay of deportations until the Government made guideline decisions in a number of test cases concerning Bosnian Croats.

The Swedish authorities rejected the conclusions of the NGO-report, inter alia by resorting to a casuistic interpretation of the term "forcible return". The Croatian authorities' practice of offering a single ticket to Bosnia-Hercegovina as the one and only alternative to some Bosnian-Croatian refugees did not amount to forcible return, it was argued, because no physical constraint was used by the Croatian authorities to put the returnees on the buses. Consequently, the Croatian practice did not contravene the principle of non-refoulement under the Geneva Convention.

However, as a result of the NGO delegation's report, the Swedish immigration authorities dropped their earlier practice of processing asylum applications of Bosnian Croats in summary procedures. As a matter of fact, the practice had been shown to be counter-productive, because it led hundreds of rejected asylum-seekers to go into hiding to escape the threatening deportation.

 

A letter to Minister Blomberg

In February 1995, the Government rejected the appeals of a number of Bosnian Croats in guideline decisions and began with the deportation of rejectees. Interior Minister Blomberg justified the proceedings by citing "guarantees" of the returnees' right to stay in Croatia which he said he had been given in a letter from Croatia's Foreign Minister Granic. However, he refused to publish the exact text of the letter, citing "diplomatic practice".

When the Croatian Embassy in Stockholm publicised the letter, a month later, it transpired that Granic had merely written that Croatia was willing to receive the Bosnian Croats and "take care of them", leaving it open whether this would happen in Croatia or in Bosnia.

Shortly after the Government's announcement, NGOs published a letter by ODPR chief Rebic, in which he once again claimed that there was a clear risk of forcible return to Bosnia for Bosnians sent back to Croatia.

 

Deportations trigger a storm of protest

The beginning of deportations in March triggered nationwide protest. Reputable NGOs accused the Government of not having taken into account the possible escalation of the war in Croatia in the event of the withdrawal of UNPROFOR and emphasised that many of the rejectees were actually deserters whose life would be put at risk in the event of deportation. In particular, they questioned the reliability of "guarantees" from the Croatian Government in a conflict marked by unpredictability. Demonstrations against Blomberg were held in many cities, and prominent Social-democrats were demanding the resignation of their Immigration Minister.

 

Church sanctuary

In open disavowal of Government policies, the Archbishop of the Church of Sweden encouraged the faithful to open not only churches but also school buildings to sanctuary for Bosnians fearing deportation and called on the Government to postpone the expulsions. The media reported daily on the more than hundred refugees - men, women and children - who had sought protection from the police by seeking sanctuary in a church in the town of Karlskrona. Unexpectedly for the Interior Minister, who believed that his restrictive policy was widely supported by the general public, many local people showed their sympathy with the refugees by bringing food supplies, clothes and toys to the refugees camping in the church.

Angrily, Minister Blomberg threatened to resign his membership of the Church of Sweden. However, in an attempt to calm down mounting public criticism, he announced a delay in carrying out further deportations on the allegedly technical grounds that the Government wished to discuss "orderly return procedures" with Croatia in April.

 

Inconsistency of Croatian policy statements

In April, the Croatian Deputy Prime Minister Kostovic, on a visit to Stockholm, once again said what the Swedish Government wanted to hear, by assuring them that no Bosnian Croats would be sent to Bosnia-Hercegovina against their will. Critics, however pointed to the still valid July 1992 decree of the ODPR and to the increasingly inconsistent official Croatian statements. Indeed, only weeks before Kostovic's visit, the Croatian Embassy in Stockholm had emphasised Croatia's "strategic interest" in seeing that Bosnians with Croatian passports return to the areas of Bosnia-Hercegovina under control of the Croatian-Bosnian Federation.

Fearing a resumption of the deportations, many refugees returned to the church sanctuaries they had left after the announcement of the technical delay in March.

 

Government bows to public pressure

By deciding on 5 May to grant temporary stay to the Bosnian-Croats, the Swedish Government has finally bowed to the demands of the NGOs and the Churches. The new decision was officially justified by reference to the self-evident fact that "further developments in Croatia are difficult to assess". But the Government also said that permanent residence permits should not be issued unless an applicant qualified for refugee status or family reunion, because there was hope that "the situation will improve within a short period of time".

By granting temporary stay to holders of Croatian passports, the Swedish authorities are for the first time making use of a new provision in the Aliens law, providing for short term protection of refugees. Refugees granted this kind of protection have a right to work and to reunion with their spouses and children under 20.

 

Visa requirement for Croatian nationals

The same day, the Government also decided to reintroduce the visa requirement for all Croatian nationals. "If we can't send a country's own citizens back to its own territory, then it is reasonable that we do not offer these persons the chance to travel to Sweden".

The visa requirement amounts to a late punishment of Croatia for its "passport trick" and is likely to effectively plug the last loophole open to Bosnian refugees fleeing from the war.

In a public statement, Amnesty International called the measure a "deeply immoral decision", amounting to an act of sabotage against the right of asylum and in contravention of the minimum guarantees for asylum procedures as recently agreed by the Ministers of the EU member States. The unusually harsh Amnesty statement shows that the tug-of-war between the Government and the NGOs is far from over.

 

Source: FARR-documentation, Swedish press, October 94 - May 95.