Welcoming Croatia Shunned by Refugees

Yermi Brenner, Al Jazeera, May 20, 2015

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While other European Union members are seeing dramatic increases in arrivals of people seeking asylum, Croatia–the EU’s newest member after joining in July 2013–is a destination most migrants avoid.

Less than 100 asylum seekers are currently residing in Croatia, according to the Ministry of Interior, and authorities granted refugee status to just 25 people last year, the lowest number of any EU member–aside from Estonia.

Last year, while the EU registered a 44-percent surge in asylum claims, Croatia saw a decrease of 58 percent.

According to EuroStat, a total of 450 asylum applications were submitted in Croatia in 2014, far few than Italy with 64,625 and Hungary with 42,775.

Furthermore, more than 80 percent of asylum applicants in Croatia in recent years left the country before their applications were processed, according to UN’s refugee agency.

Homogeneous and impoverished

Two main factors cause asylum seekers to avoid Croatia entirely or leave the country after they arrive, explained Sanja Pupacic of the Croatia Red Cross.

The first is the homogeneity of Croatian society. Pupacic said 90 percent of the 4.5 million people living here are ethnic Croats, and about 86 percent define themselves as Roman Catholic.

Pupacic constantly meets asylum seekers who want to leave Croatia for more diverse European destinations–mostly Germany or Sweden–because there they can find contacts or friends who would make it easier to fit in.

“In these countries, there are many migrants and many migrant communities, so the asylum seekers feel more safe,” said Pupacic. “It is a bit easier for them to integrate.”

The second factor dissuading migrants, Pupacic said, is Croatia’s dire economic conditions. The country has had negative or stagnant economic growth since 2009.

Its unemployment rate of about 17 percent is the third-highest among EU members, behind Spain and Greece. Pupacic said locals struggle to find jobs, so for migrants it is an even bigger challenge.

Croatia is not the only country being shunned by migrants.

Six other states–Portugal, Slovenia, Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania–received less asylum applications than Croatia in 2014.

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The Croatian government has done a lot to improve reception conditions for refugees, according to Mirjana Vergas of UNHCR-Croatia.

“The biggest problem is the lack of government-provided Croatian language classes, which haven’t existed for the past three years,” said Vergas.

“This prevented refugees from learning the language, which decreases their chances for employment and becoming self-sustainable.”

During 2013, amendments to the Croatian Asylum Act were passed in order to enable people with protection status to learn the language. But two years have passed and lessons have yet to be provided.

In response to Al Jazeera’s inquiry, the Ministry of Science, Education and Sports–the authority responsible for enabling the language courses–sent a statement saying the implementation “will start at the earliest possible time”. It did not reply to follow-up questions.

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