Czech authorities regularly place illegal migrants in grim detention centers. The UN has criticized the practice that some believe is proving effective in keeping refugee numbers low. Ian Willoughby reports from Prague.
The government of the Czech Republic is operating a policy of treating migrants harshly in a deliberate bid to keep their numbers down. That is the assertion of the director of a leading Czech non-governmental organization working with refugees.
"I think it's obvious. It was even stated by the minister for human rights, Jiri Dienstbier," Martin Rozumek of the Organization for Aid to Refugees told DW. "You can also find articles from the Czech Ministry of the Interior stating they believe this policy works."
Rozumek said the Czech police are not required by European Union rules to intern migrants who don't have valid papers automatically. "It should be a last resort, if no other measures can be applied. But they do it routinely as a first option," he said. "It's not an obligation but a policy of the Czech Interior Ministry and the police - to detain and deter everyone."
His comments follow stinging criticism last week from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Raad Al Hussein, who also asserted that Prague was operating a deliberate policy of frightening migrants away.
The UN official said in a statement that the ex-communist state "systematically" violates the rights of refugees and migrants by holding people in detention camps described by the country's own justice minister as "worse than prisons" for up to 90 days.
Rozumek said reports of the tough treatment handed out in the Czech Republic have spread through the informal bush telegraph created by the great numbers of refugees entering Europe this year. "We know that they share information about the bad conditions in the Czech Republic with each other," he said.
This might perhaps be borne out by the low numbers reported by the Czech interior minister, Milan Chovanec. He tweeted last week that the police had apprehended 7,000 illegal migrants so far this year. At present, however, only 460 people are being held in Czech detention facilities, he said.
On Czech soil - by accident
The main detention center, Bela-Jezova, lies around an hour's drive northeast of Prague. Hana Kavanova has been doing volunteer work at the visitors center there for some months.
"It's just like a jail," Kavanova told DW. "There are fences, barbed wire, police men, security guards. The people there are really desperate."
While Germany is expecting up to 1.5 million migrants to arrive in 2015, the neighboring Czech Republic - less prosperous and with few ethnic minorities - is by no means a popular destination in this regard. Indeed, the country's immigration authorities have only registered around 1,100 asylum applications since January.
Very few of those detained wish to even set foot on Czech soil as they head westwards to states such as Germany and Sweden, according to local refugees' rights groups.
"Some of them don't even know where they are," said Kavanova. "When they were picked up they were just taking a train, for example from Vienna to Germany, and they didn't know they were crossing some other country."
In his statement the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said it was "particularly reprehensible" that those who find themselves locked up in Czech detention facilities have to pay around nine euros ($10) for every day inside. In addition, new arrivals are routinely strip-searched in an effort to force those hiding cash to hand it over, Al Hussein said.
Conditions in general are far from cushy. Detainees have their mobile phones confiscated. Guards have limited language skills and access to interpreters is scant. Volunteers offering free legal aid report difficulty in securing meetings with clients.
Kavanova said she met a Syrian woman who had been brought to Bela-Jezova with her baby, delivered by Caesarean section in Greece two weeks previously.
"Though she clearly needed medical treatment, they locked her overnight in a gym with other new arrivals: men, women and children," Kavanova said. "There was no water and if they wanted to go to the toilet, they had to wait for maybe one hour for a guard to take them."
Confirming a stereotype
Czech politicians have almost uniformly rejected the UN human rights chief's recent assertions. Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek denied refugees were being systematically mistreated and invited the Al Hussein to visit the Czech Republic's asylum facilities for himself.
For his part the outspoken Czech president, Milos Zeman, appeared undeterred by Al Hussein's accusation that his "repeated Islamophobic statements" had contributed to xenophobic public discourse in the Czech Republic.
Men with iPhones are "using children as human shields" in a bid to win sympathy, Zeman told the biggest local tabloid Blesk at the weekend. This followed a recent claim that migrants would respect sharia law instead of Czech laws and that "unfaithful women will be stoned and thieves will have their hands cut off."
The director of the Prague-based think tank the Institute for International Relations, Petr Kratochvil, believes Zeman and other Czech politicians are playing to a domestic electorate that polls suggest take a relatively unfavorable view of migrants. They are less concerned about how the country's treatment of migrants may tarnish its international reputation, he says.
"The UN High Commissioner's report will generally just confirm the stereotype - although it is a stereotype that is becoming more and more true - that the Czech authorities are not very friendly towards refugees and that it has become a sort of national strategy to repel potential refugees by offering such a harsh welcome that the most will not travel across the Czech Republic," Kratochvil said.