The Czech Republic is:
a) neighbour of Germany and Austria;
b) the most developed from the V4 countries;
c) a country that lived under communism for four decades and since the Velvet revolution break out, also a country that focuses its foreign policy on the protection of human rights.
All are correct, but there is a catch!
During the refugee crisis of 2015, it is also a country that treats the captured refugees with disrespect in its detention facilities and as the numbers of them are not so high like in other countries, the information coverage on this is very small. So what are the conditions in the Czech refugee detention centres?
Rumours say that there are 2 terrible things that can happen to a refugee during a trip to Europe. The first one is the boat ride from Turkey to Greece and the second one is getting captured by the Czech authorities and being placed in the facilities for refugees in the Czech Republic. Is it true? And why does the Czech government allow this? Should not heads be falling for such treatments?
Czech refugee facilities
All refugee facilities in the Czech Republic are managed by the Refugee Facility Administration that falls under the Ministry of Interior. The Minister is Milan Chovanec, who is infamous for passing a university degree at the University of West Bohemia at the Faculty of Law in just 9 months. Something, which in Western Europe would be incongruous with active political mandate and would be preceded by immediate resignation from any political posts. Not in the Czech Republic. There after such a scandal, you become a Minister.
There are several types of centres for refugees entering the territory of the Czech Republic. Detailed information can be retrieved from the website of the Ministry of Interior (this page is BTW not updated since August 2014, probably not much is happening *irony*), which however does not contain addresses of all the facilities as new ones were added recently.
There are several types of facilities run by Refugee Facility Administration:
- Detention centres (Vyšní Lhoty, Zastávka u Brna, Bělá pod Bezdězem – Jezová, tent city in Břeclav – Poštorná, soon to be opened Drahonice and Balková) – where refugees are detained to illegal entry into the country and are awaiting the administrative expulsion according to the Dublin Regulation or for the transfer to another country. Refugees are referred to as clients and they have to pay for their stay (ridiculous, or not?) a total of 240,- CZK/day (9 EUR, 10 USD). As these people did not apply for asylum, they do not participate in any language or integration course. They often wait for identification as they failed to present personal documents to the police officers that captured them.
- Reception centres (Zastávka u Brna, Václav Havel Airport Prague) are housing refugees that filed for asylum in the Czech Republic. The facility in Zastávka u Brna is also serving families with children as the detention facilities elsewhere are not suitable for them. This has been ordered by the Supreme Administrative Court in July 2015. After all necessary administrative and medical proceedings are completed, the asylum applicants get transferred to:
- Accommodation centres (Kostelec nad Orlicí, Havířov) where the asylum applicants are staying until the decision about granting asylum becomes legally effective. Details about the stay are in the above mentioned link.
- Integration asylum centres (many across the country – e.g. in Brno, Česká Lípa) serve to provide temporary accommodation to recognized refugees.
The main focus of this article is the first category of Czech refugee detention centres. The purpose is to summarize the so far available published information (which is mostly published in the world’s 19th language that is hard to learn – Czech) in English and conditions in Czech refugee detention centres.
Police hunt for refugees
The current migration wave is targeting mostly Germany and the Nordic countries. Many refugees are trying to reach Germany through Austria to avoid passing through the Czech Republic, but there are quite some that get captured by the Czech police, usually when on the train in the first city behind the border – Břeclav. Others were also stopped in vans or cars on Czech roads.
At the beginning of September, the first Czech scandal emerged as the Czech police was marking the captured refugees with an ink pen like cattle. A practice truly resembling Nazi numbering systems in the concentration camps with the difference that this was a washable permanent marker, but not a tattoo. The reaction of the world was strong and Milan Chovanec, the Minister of Interior apologized and police started to use bracelets instead.
Vast majority of refugees arriving to the Czech Republic have no intention to settle in the country, they just want to pass to the West. Therefore when they are placed in the detention centre, they receive a different treatment than those that would be filing for an asylum in the Czech Republic.
What are these detention centres?
They are basically prisons with police guarding the outside and a security agency inside. The premises are encompassed by a double fence with barb or razor wire and it is not possible to leave the premises. They can move freely within the facility with the curfew being at 23:00.
There have been several attempts by refugees inside the camps to break through these fences (the biggest one in July 2015 in the Czech detention centre Bělá – Jezová), but they were suppressed before the crowd got to the second gate.
A recently released refugee commented that he has been handcuffed and also held at the police station for 2 days, only after he has been transported to a detention centre. Given that the person did not commit any severe crime, just crossed the border illegally, what justifies such behaviour? Was that person so aggressive that he needed to be handcuffed?
Is it really necessary to behave to the refugees that way? Is it the game of the Ministry of Interior to make the conditions in the Czech refugee detention centres unbearable to deter people from even considering to cross through the Czech Republic?
Refugees commenting on the living conditions in Czech refugee detention centres (Bělá pod Bezdězem – Jezová and Vyšní Lhoty) they were just released from. Video in French and English with Czech translation.
Upon arrival to the detention centre
First of all, it is very hard to access any information regarding the life in Czech refugee detention centre. The staff is not allowed to talk about the conditions there and the media have to file a request to enter the facility, but as it is not allowed to take any pictures inside, little is documented and only eye-witnesses can tell how humiliating conditions there are.
Most of these observations below come from the released refugees themselves or from NGO employees that are allowed to enter the facility. If you speak Czech, you can refer to this article too.
After arriving to the Czech refugee detention centre in Bělá pod Bezdězem – Jezová refugees have to give up all their personal documents and belongings, but also jewellery and money including their mobile phones. There are even some testimonies that they have been told to undress and they were asked to jump so that it can be ruled out that they are hiding anything in their cavities. This is a truly an embarrassing experience not worth a country that is fighting internationally for the improvement of human rights!
Life in a Czech refugee detention centre
They receive a prepaid card to use in a public phone booth, which is located in the premises of the detention centre. Often, they are deprived of cigarettes too, which regardless of the health risk of smoking, is adding up to the level of stress that a refugee is exposed to by staying in such a facility.
In the video above, you can hear released refugees complaining about the lack of hygiene and overall cleanliness of the Czech refugee detention centre in Vyšní Lhoty and insufficient number of toilets. Below this article are videos posted by the Ministry of Interior with footage on the interiors and exteriors of these camps. Of course, the places that were shot were carefully selected, but you can see that there is quite some dirt in some of the facilities especially in the common areas. The footage is intentionally without sound, probably to avoid having any criticisms be heard aloud.
The refugees are also criticising insufficient communication, many of them do not even know where they have been transported, they also move them often from one camp to another. It is actually not a standard that refugees would talk English or any other language besides Arabic. This impossibility to engage in a conversation with the employees of the facility and the Czech police is often leading to frustrations and misunderstandings. The only means of communication is to only use hand and sign language, which brings many humiliating situations too. This clearly shows how the Czech Republic is not ready for the whole migration wave.
The communication barrier is also quite visible when being examined by the local doctors. People often have troubles expressing what their health issue is. The sick refugees are usually placed to quarantine and therefore many people try to overcome their sickness in order to not be split up from their family or in order to not be alone in quarantine.
The most criticized is actually the fact that families are often separated. Mothers with children stay in Bělá – Jezová or Zastávka u Brna and men are transported to the centre in Vyšní Lhoty, which is for men only. Often one part of the family is released earlier than the rest. Czech authorities are claiming that they are trying to avoid such situations, but apparently they are not that successful in doing so. It is not the dangerous ride through the Mediterranean or not even the big march through Europe that could separate them, but the Czech authorities that fail to keep families together.
If you watch the videos below, you can see that the detention centre in Bělá – Jezová is hardly a place where you can imagine living when you are a child. The camp in Zastávka is a bit more child friendly, but most of its facilities (e.g. the Internet room or workshops) can be used only by those foreigners that filed for asylum in the Czech Republic and are thus staying in the accommodation part of the camp. If they are just in detention, they are not allowed to use them.
You can also see that these Czech refugee detention centres often contain plain bunk beds, many are entirely missing bedding. There are sometimes even 8 – 9 beds per room making the living space and concentration (given there are many people coming from various countries, social statuses and religious backgrounds) very hard to embrace. It is for sure having an adverse effect on the psychology of the refugees and if it is combined altogether with all the things mentioned above, it truly brings depression and humiliation. Also, such concentration of people basically means there is no privacy.
Leaving a Czech refugee detention centre
The maximum stay in the detention centre is 545 days in severe cases, mostly the duration should not be longer than 180 days and 90 in case of families with children. For every day spent in the detention facility, the refugee has to pay 240 CZK. Many therefore leave the centre with a bill in their hand and a debt to the Czech Republic for the stay they did not plan on doing in the first place. If they would ever consider applying for asylum in the Czech Republic, their application would be considering also whether they are not having any debts in the Czech Republic. So the situation is a bit like from Havel drama.
In the video above, you hear many refugees complaining that they were captured with hundreds of euros, but were released only with the obligatory 400,- CZK (15 EUR or 16.5 USD). This money often is the expense to cover the train ticket to Prague (e.g. Vyšní Lhoty is located in the East of the Czech Republic, 380 km by car to Prague). Thanks to Czech volunteers, who operate on the Main train station, the refugees are provided with money to continue their journey further to Germany, but also with clothes and food.
Upon release from the detention facility, many who arrived there during summer months are actually set free just in shorts and T-shirts with an official document written in Czech that they have to leave the territory of the Czech Republic by a given date.
One thing that I do not understand is why are the people released in the middle of the night. Is it so necessary to set them free at 3 in the morning or 10 in the evening and let them walk freely in darkness when there are no trains running? What is humane on this?
What is happening now?
On 24th September 2015, the European Commission has started infringement proceedings against 23 out of 28 EU countries for failing to abide by EU asylum laws with respect to procedures, qualifications for refugee status, and reception conditions. The Czech Republic is of course one of them.
Prime Minister Sobotka’s comment on this was indicating that the government is not taking this so seriously as there are other countries being involved in the infringement proceedings. What a wrong message! The Czech Republic should be aiming on being the role model for observance of human rights and not one of others that actually violate them! This is the Vaclav Havel message and the post revolution direction that the current government is deflecting from. Such approach harms only the country itself and does not make the best image ever.
The alarming situation in the Czech refugee detention centres has been already brought to wide public attention by NGOs operating in them, but also by other international refugee and human rights organizations (including Human Rights Watch and UNHCR).
The Minister of Justice, Robert Pelikán, has offered the help of the prison officers to help manage the situation in the reception facilities as this personnel is much better trained for this type of job than the security agency that is being hired to carry out the internal watch over the facility. Robert Pelikán seems to be the only member of the government, who was deeply moved by the situation in the facilities as he visited them in full operation.
President of the Czech Republic, Miloš Zeman, although he was visiting Vyšní Lhoty personally last week, refused to set foot into the detention centre saying that he accepts visits of only those that he invites and that he did not invite the refugees to come to our country. A truly populist and insensitive remark.
The Czech refugee detention centre – tent facility in Břeclav – Poštorná, that was built in the beginning of September 2015 will be dismantled by the end of October/beginning November as it has never actually been put into practice. Sadly, on the other side of the border in Austria, there are thousands of people that could make use of the heated tents and this ready-made camp. New facilities will open in Balková and in Drahonice towards the end of the year.
My biggest wish would be if the Minister of Interior, Milan Chovanec, would resign from his current position as I think that he is not the right person for the job, he is incompetent and he is either not interested in the topic and the help to people passing through or he wants to abuse the current situation to polarize the Czech society even more than it currently is. But as you probably know, admitting making a mistake and being a guy with balls to make actions with personal impact is not something that the Czech politics is really abundant in.
Sadly enough, the numbers of refugees passing through the Czech Republic are very small (around 3,000). The fear factor radiated by the behaviour of the Czech authorities to refugees is actually working. But that is for yet another article on how are the refugees perceived in the Czech Republic and how the government communicates to the citizens.
To end this with a light at the end of the tunnel: the number of attacks against the refugee centres in the Czech Republic has been so far: 0. Let’s hope it will stay that way.
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Official videos of the Ministry of Interior from the detention facilities
These videos were published on 24th September 2015 (coincidence with the EU infringement proceedings?) and are without sound or any commentary. Check out for yourself how the facilities look like and if you would want to spend up to 1,5 year in such a place (while paying 240,- CZK per night).
Bělá pod Bezdězem – Jezová
This Czech refugee detention centre is located 5 km from the closest habitation. When refugees are released, they often get lost in the woods, police sometimes offers them a lift to the train station. This camp has witnessed refugee riots and many have been starving themselves on protest with the aim to get to speak to some responsible person.
Recently reopened facility in the East of the Czech Republic. The president Miloš Zeman refused to visit the refugees staying in this centre during his visit to the region on 24th September 2015.
Zastávka u Brna
This is both the reception centre and the accommodation centre for asylum applicants. Some parts may not be accessible to the refugees staying under the detention regime (such as the internet)
Břeclav – Poštorná
Břeclav – Poštorná reception facility before dismantling. This centre has been built, has been ready, but has never been used. It is nice to see that they have even the tooth brushes ready, but will never get a chance to give them to anybody.