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October 27, 2015
October 27, 2015

Croatia: Securitisation of the refugee issue by the political elites

Author: Lucija Mulalić
Category: Borders
This article is also available in: elhr
Croatia: Securitisation of the refugee issue by the political elites
Lucija Mulalić is an activist, member and volunteer for the Centre for Peace Studies, Croatia. Currently in Tampere, Finland, working on her second Master's thesis on refugees and asylum.

Croatia is no stranger to refugees. After all, we were exactly those freezing and worried people 25 years ago, when we were crossing borders with no papers, papers that were destroyed together with our houses, in search of a safe place. Croatia is also no stranger to accepting refugees. After all, it hosted over half a million people during the wars that broke up Yugoslavia.

In the last month, Croatia has again been reminded of its refugee past, as it became a transit country for more than 220,000 refugees. But this crisis is different –even though we are economically much better now than in the aftermath of our war– the main narrative of Croatia’s political elites is the one stating that we can’t handle the crisis – we are too small and economically deprived. But it may have something to do also with the fact that people arriving across our borders right now are not our neighbours – they are some foreign, dark and exotic mass of people whom we don’t really understand, nor do we really want to understand. They are the Others, and they frighten us.

The way our government, led by a social democratic party (at least in name), handled the situation can be described as fairly chaotic. Only days before the first people crossed our borders, our Minister of Interior was trying to convince the public, and obviously himself, that Croatia will be “spared the migrant wave”. But then, refugees, not properly informed of our minister’s dreams of them staying away, still arrived. After realising that hoping that no one will come isn’t enough, we clumsily began transporting refugees to our neighbour countries and letting others deal with…well, Others.

Most of Croatia’s politicians and media didn’t remember the fact that we too were refugees not so long ago. The discourse they reproduced was a discourse already present in Croatia regarding refugees and migrants: one that views foreigners as threats to Croatia’s security, society and culture. It’s not a new thing – Croatia’s (really low number of) asylum seekers and recognised refugees have all had to put up with legislation, institutions and technologies that saw them as threats. It’s also not specifically a Croatian thing – Croatia just followed the European trend of focusing on security of borders and neglecting human needs and security of refugees. With its restrictive policies towards undocumented migrants, of which many are refugees, the Union created an impenetrable Fortress on whose borders the death toll keeps rising. The same restrictive system was adopted in Croatia since we started developing our asylum system in the 2000s.

The Union’s stance on migration is not new – the first sign of EU states collaboration regarding migration issues was one focused on terrorism (the TREVI group of 1975). The only thing European countries could agree on completely was that they wanted control of the borders of the Fortress, and that they want to limit refugee and migrant entries as much as they could. This is done in many ways: with visa regimes and visa requirements that ultimately block most people from entering Europe legally, through Frontex border patrols and actions of chasing and deporting refugees all over Europe; push back operations. There is also collaboration with third countries aiming at stopping refugees from even entering Europe: readmission and visa agreements, collective actions, financing of detention centres as far away from Europe, in the processes of deterritorisation and externalisation that are all contributing to the protection of the Fortress from the supposed migrant threat. Money is pouring into Frontex, Schengen Information System and External Borders Fund. Data bases of information and prints, networks of immigration officers, surveillance of the borders and systems such as EUROSUR, so advanced and meticulous, make us feel like we are in a Foucauldian fairytale of control; or better said, nightmare. Those lucky enough not to drown at sea or smother in overcrowded trucks, are preventively locked up in asylum centres, detention camps, closed complexes, in which power and violence are used unselectively. Their rights are constantly reduced, and the legal hurdles they have to go through in order to prove the legitimacy of their claim are getting more and more unattainable.

Even though the EU institutions have been very careful in framing the issue –focusing it on supposed human rights– there is an obvious discrepancy of the narratives and actions that clearly view migrants as threats. But up to a point – the above mentioned policies and acts carried out by the EU states are sometimes openly supported by a discourse that justifies and legitimises them. It is a discourse used by the politicians, decision makers, security experts, but also the media elites. Migration in that discourse is criminalised and securitised, undocumented migrants and asylum seekers stigmatised and framed as a security threat to the European states. They become potential terrorists and criminals, liars and fakers, illegals, disease spreaders, benefits exploiters, jobs stealers, threats to tourism, rapists and women abusers, and culture destroyers.

Through the process of securitisation, a concept first introduced by Copenhagen School’s Ole Wæver, political issues are constructed in a way that they become security threats. Those issues may not be important to the survival of the state – but with securitisation, they are constructed as existential problems that require the activation of extraordinary measures. Securitisation has to have a securtising actor that holds a position of authority and uses speech acts in order to securitise a certain referent object; and an audience that has to accept the issue as a security threat in order to make the process of securitisation successful. Migration flows have been established as a challenge to European security [1], and undocumented migrants, asylum seekers and refugees in particular are securitised. Not only do they become threats to our peace and stability, our labour markets and welfare systems, but also to our values and identities. At the same time racism and xenophobia are on the rise throughout Europe, which could ultimately prove that the securitisation is in a way achieved: fear of the Other has in large part successfully influenced the thinking of many Europeans.

Though the concept of securitisation certainly has its limits –it defines security in very narrow terms and puts focus on linguistics while neglecting other non-discourse security acts– I still believe it can be used to an extent to describe what is currently happening in Croatia. Security in Croatia is still largely confined to a traditionalist view – there is little talk of human security, be it in the political arena or an academic one [2]. Let’s shortly review what Croatia’s most prominent politicians had to say about the refugee flow [3]. The discourse of securitisation mostly arrived from Croatia’s right wing parties and politicians, all supposedly based on Christian values of solidarity:

Ruža Tomašić, president of Croatian Conservative Party: „If I could decide what to do with refugees, I’d put them in a military object under surveillance. Firstly because we don’t know who we received, maybe there are ISIS members among them. I’d immediately send economic migrants back home, and political migrants we have to keep, as they would be killed if returned. While the refugees would stay in the military object, we should check who they are and constantly keep an eye on them and decide who to keep„

Tomislav Karamarko, president of Croatian Democratic Union: „God forbid if an epidemic breaks out. At the same time – the locals are also in fear. Life is paralysed here, it’s a question whether children will continue to go to school“

Gordan Jandroković, CDU: “I fear that in the days that follow we will see a growing importance of the security dimension of this problem. Tonight a few thousand people, without surveillance, without control, without registration, entered Croatia”.

A press release from CDU: “We are asking the Croatian government clear responses and concrete security measures with regards to the growing wave of emigrants from Arab countries”.

Dragan Vulin, president of Croatian Democratic Alliance of Slavonia and Baranja: “We urgently demand the Government of Croatia to proclaim a state of emergency, to bring the army to the borders and to shut them down. We are threatened by a humanitarian disaster, but also a menace to our citizens, and we cannot allow it. We are humane, but this is not a coincidence”.

Croatian Party of Rights dr. Ante Starčević, in a press release: “We demand an urgent closure of the borders […]. The uncontrolled entry of refugees in Croatia is bringing the state into a situation with no solution”.

The Croatian president, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović (former CDU): in a letter to the Prime Minister, demanding an urgent meeting of the Council for National Security: “It is my duty to warn of the refugee wave and all of its societal, economical and security implications. The most important thing that I insist on is the safety of Croatian citizens, the stability of the state and the control and surveillance of the border. Before anything else, we have to think of our own citizens and our diaspora, and our standard. I don’t exclude the possibility of raising a border fence in the future. We have been flooded with migrants, and it has become very difficult to manage the flow of people. This has affected our tourism, because people perceive an element of insecurity. Up to 80% of the migrants passing through Croatia are economic migrants who don’t come from Syria or Iraq, but other states. Europe and Croatia cannot accept all this poverty and misery. We have to control our border, so elements that are not necessarily terrorist, but that can be smugglers of drugs, weapons, people, are not let through”.

But not only the right maintained this discourse. Vesna Pusić, Minister of Foreign and European Affairs, focused on the country’s capacities in sustaining the large flow of people, constructing them as a threat to our limited resources. Mirela Holy, former Minister of Environmental Protection and Nature, stated that “among the people fleeing from death and poverty there are certainly infiltrated terrorists who will become a huge security issue for the entire EU”. The Minister of Interior, Rajko Ostojić, whose ministry was responsible for handling the crisis, continued his already known narrative of framing refugees within a securitised discourse focusing on protecting the safety of our borders, and not the people who cross them.

The mainstream media happily accepted this discourse and reported it in a sensationalist way. The “illegal immigrants” are coming –they shouted, with complete lack of information or even basic vocabulary- mixing terms such as asylum seekers, emigrants, immigrants and refugees, even trying to explain to the public the difference between “legal” and “illegal” refugees [4]. Reporting on the financial costs, threats to tourism and providing plenty of space to politicians mentioned above, but also columnists and security experts babbling on about terrorists, and ignoring opposing voices, they painted a picture of the crisis that further pushed the image of a migrant that is a threat to our peace and security, our way of life.

Was the securitisation successful? Well if you look at already existing attitudes of the Croatian population that mostly viewed asylum seekers as dangerous for Croatia [5], I would argue that it was – evident in the massive rise of racist and Islamophobic comments on Croatia’s websites and social networks, calling for military action at the border. But at the same time another Croatia also surfaced – thousands of people began donating and volunteering, driving refugees to the border, cooking hot meals and offering their houses. It was a sort of Croatia that proved it remembers what it’s like to be a refugee and that believes in solidarity and the power of the community. Hopefully that kind of Croatia will prevail in the following months, led by the statement of our Prime Minister Zoran Milanović: “I do not believe in fences. Building a wall is not an option for Croatia and anyone who thinks otherwise is delusional”.


[1] One example among many could be connecting migration and asylum with topics such as terrorism and organised crime in EU’s Hague Programme.

[2] The Faculty of Political Science in Zagreb, my alma mater, in all its courses dealing with security issues still puts the state (as opposed to the individual) as the sole referent of security.

[3] All statements are taken from direct quotes reported by the Croatian media (Večernji list, Jutarnji list)

[4] An article in one of the most read newspapers and web-portals, Večernji list

[5] Research by Croatia’s NGO Centre for Peace studies (2013) showed that asylum seekers are the second most unwanted minority in Croatia, with the Roma people being first. In addition, the biggest protest in Croatia regarding the building of a facility designed for human care was precisely against the building of an asylum seekers’ centre in Stubička Slatina (research by Nikola Petrović, 2006).

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Croatia: Securitisation of the refugee issue by the political elites by Lucija Mulalić is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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