Responding to transit refugees in Croatia

How do local authorities and humanitarian agencies collaborate when refugees are in transit? An IIED-supported research project is looking at the transit refugee response in Croatia.

Maren Larsen's picture
Insight by 
Maren Larsen
Maren Larsen is a research affiliate at the Institute for International Urban Development (I2UD)
19 August 2016
A family at the border crossing between Serbia and Croatia. Some 650,000 migrants and refugees travelled through Croatia between September 2015 and January 2016 (Photo: Meabh Smith/Trócaire, Creative Commons via Flickr)

A family at the border crossing between Serbia and Croatia. Some 650,000 migrants and refugees travelled through Croatia between September 2015 and January 2016 (Photo: Meabh Smith/Trócaire, Creative Commons via Flickr)

The conflict in Syria has led to massive population displacement since the outbreak of violence in 2011. In the summer of 2015, a migration route from Syria through South Eastern Europe opened up, with some 650,000 migrants and refugees passing through Croatia from September 2015 to January 2016.

An IIED-supported research project has been looking at how local authorities and humanitarian agencies in Croatia responded to this influx of people.

A centrally organised government response, including a free train service through newly established transit centres such as in Slavonski Brod, the largest and longest functioning centre, helped to manage the large flows of refugees.

Such train services provided a rapid and effective passageway to Western Europe, and the response led to innovative approaches to delivering humanitarian assistance and protecting human rights under tight time constraints. 

Clear communication needed

For local authorities to be effective in a national crisis response they must be engaged in central government decisions on how the process will be managed, including areas they will coordinate, when to participate, and how they will cooperate with humanitarian agencies. 

However, during this particular crisis, central government did not involve local authorities in decisions on how the response would be managed and their role in the response was unclear. This led to their having little or no involvement in planning and decision making, leaving many unprepared for the arrival of migrants and refugees.

After a period of initial confusion in several towns and cities in Eastern Croatia, the central government organised a coordinated response and established dedicated centres to manage the influx. 

Understanding local context

Organisations providing humanitarian assistance seeking to work with local actors during a national crisis response need to understand the relationship between the local authorities and central government (which may be influenced by particular interests of the central government).

They must also understand the decentralisation framework, including the responsibilities and resources of local authorities, and the urban system as a whole, such as demographic and economic specificities that could colour central government decisions. 

For instance, by organising transport and establishing a transit centre in Slavonski Brod, the central government ensured migrants and refugees bypassed Zagreb, the capital of Croatia and the country's economic hub, reducing potential disruption caused by large numbers of migrants and refugees. 

With national elections imminent, the response may have been managed in this way for political reasons; the Slavonski Brod area suffers from high unemployment and low levels of economic activity and by locating the transit centre in this area, the government created a short and limited economic boom for public utility companies and the local hospitality industry. This provided jobs for a few hundred people. 

Protection and security 

For the humanitarian organisations collaborating with the Croatian authorities (local and central), one of the main contentions our research found was between the humanitarian concept of 'protection' and the state's objective of ensuring security in the transit centres. 

The state's main objective was to ensure the security of migrants and refugees as they passed through Croatian territory, while several humanitarian agencies felt the lengthy queuing for registration, security clearance and train boarding procedures affected their ability to deliver services that ensured an individual's 'protection' (such as information on asylum, mother and baby care, dignified shelter for longer stays). How to go about negotiating the rights of individuals was not always clear. 

Typically, migrants and refugees spent just four to six hours in Croatian transit centres. This meant adjusting usual modes of ensuring rights, protection, and offering aid to meet basic needs, while still paying attention to cultural norms.

Assistance had to become 'mobile'. For instance play areas for children were brought directly to the queues, UN agencies launched child and family support centres known as Blue Dot hubs, and private yet accessible spaces were provided for mothers to breastfeed without losing their place in line. 

Towards local resettlement and integration 

In Croatia many tasks related to asylum, migration, and international protection are assigned to the state. This meant that, aside from utility services, fire protection and civil defence, this crisis drew on few local government resources. 

Going forward, these local authorities will almost certainly need to play a far larger role than during the seven-month refugee transit period. Migrants and refugees will rely more heavily on local services, particularly cities' and municipalities' social and economic services (i.e. schools, vocational training, employment, and medical services).

A more permanent presence of refugees and asylum seekers in the cities and towns in Croatia will require structured thinking about the financial resources to support integration.

Cities that share a political willingness to host refugees should be supported, and mechanisms for central-local dialogue leveraged to facilitate the dialogue on internal resettlement.

Maren Larsen ([email protected]) is a research affiliate at the Institute for International Urban Development (I2UD).