By Sarah Ben-Moussa
As refugees travel to Europe in search of sanctuary, some have been crossing through the Czech Republic, which is often merely a passing point on the way to other parts of Europe, such as Germany or Sweden. The Czech Republic received over 1,350 asylum requests through November 2015, a small figure compared to Germany’s 1.1 million asylum seekers in 2015. Notwithstanding this fact, refugees passing through or requesting asylum in the Czech Republic often face detention, arbitrary fines, lack of access to justice and widespread xenophobia.
On Oct. 22, 2015, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, criticized the Czech Republic for systematic violations of the human rights of refugees attempting to cross through the Czech Republic on their way to Germany.
Refugees face detention for up to 90 days, and are sometimes fined 250 CZK (10 USD) to finance their own detention, he said. Refugees have also reportedly been strip-searched on a regular basis and any money on their persons has been confiscated. In the first nine months of 2015, over 7,000 refugees were detained by the Czech government, most for 90 daya.
Conditions in detention centers, particularly in the Bela-Jezova center, are “worse than a prison”, according to the Czech Justice Minister, Robert Pelikán. Anna Sabatova, the Czech Ombudsman, reiterated this criticism, and warned that children risked being traumatized while in detention by the constant presence of armed guards, who often degraded refugees in front of their children. Moreover, the Czech Ombudsman has noted that the treatment of children in these centers violates the U.N. Convention on the Rights of a Child, to which the Czech Republic is a party. The Committee on the Rights of the Child itself has also criticized the detention of children and minors based on the migration status of their parents as a violation of international law, which the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights also emphasized in its statement.
Legal reprieve is often also hard to obtain. Although the High Commissioner noted that there have been refugees who have challenged their detention and prevailed, he said that many were not in a position to seek judicial remedy, due to lack of information about their right to free legal aid and the restricted access of civil-society groups in some detention facilities. In November 2015, refugees in one detention center went on a hunger strike in protest of the long detention times and the possibility of being repatriated to their home country.
Furthermore, Czech President Miloš Zeman has repeatedly made xenophobic comments against refugees, contributing to a toxic atmosphere in a country where 70 percent of the population opposes the arrivals of refugees, according to a 2015 poll. President Zeman has gone on record warning against the influx of refugees, arguing that refugees will bring Sharia law with them, endangering Czech society. “The beauty of our women will be hidden, as they’ll be forced to wear burkas,” Zeman said. He was quick to add, “Though I can think of some for whom this would be an improvement.”
In December 2015, Zeman called the refugee influx an “organized invasion” of Europe, and called on refugees to stay in their home countries to fight the Islamic State. And in January 2015, Zeman said that it is “practically impossible” to integrate Muslims into European society, and that the surge of refugees was planned and coordinated by the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt in an effort to gain control of Europe. These comments have spurred violence against refugees in the Czech Republic, drawing condemnation from the Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka.
CZECH RESPONSE TO CRITICISM
In response to international criticism, Czech Interior Minister Milan Chovanec stated that he disagrees with the U.N. that Czech policies violate human rights law. He added that conditions have been improving and said that the High Commissioner was welcome to come to the Czech Republic and examine the situation.
The President’s office, however, was much more defensive, responding to the U.N. criticism via Facebook, and posting that the “verbal attack” by the OHCHR was not the first, and was part of an “intensifying” campaign against the Czech Republic. The spokesman for his office later added that the President stands by his opinion and will not change his mind due to pressure abroad.
It should be noted, however, that the President does not hold a large amount of policy power, and instead functions as a ceremonial head of state. Although they do not use the same inflammatory rhetoric, the center-left government of the Czech Republic still remains the only state currently detaining refugees and migrants for such long periods of time. They also faced criticism from human rights advocates and Jewish groups in 2015 for numbering refugees as they arrived off of trains, a practice with deep historical ties to the Second World War. They quickly abandoned the practice after the backlash.
A BETTER WAY FORWARD?
The Czech Republic has been defiant in its stance on refugees, denying any human rights violations. The lengthy detention of refugees and the dehumanizing treatment they face serves no legitimate purpose but to degrade refugees and create an additional obstacle in their already difficult journey to safety. As Europe braces for more refugees in 2016, the question is if the Czech Republic will continue adhering to its policies that fly in the face of international law and human rights standards, or seek a new, rights-based way forward.
Sarah Ben-Moussa is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.
The views expressed in this post remain those of the individual author and are not reflective of the official position of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, Fordham Law School, Fordham University or any other organization.
Photo credit: Lukas Krasa/Creative Commons