Refugees being treated like criminals in Czech detention centres, op-ed by Martin Rozumek, Executive Director of Organisation for Aid to Refugees
Many refugees are trying to get from Hungary through Slovakia and the Czech Republic to Germany, but now many of them fail on the way. The Czech police are currently checking trains for irregular travellers passing through the country without a Czech visa. On the night of the 31th of August 260 refugees, of mainly Syrian background, were taken out of trains and cars. Afterwards the refugees were brought to detention centres pending deportation. Until now there were two such detention centres in the Czech Republic. One is in Běla-Jezova (about 60km away from Prague) and the other is in Vyšni Lhoty (about 400km away from Prague). However, a further reception centre in Zastávka (about 19km from Brno) is now detaining refugees because of the current lack of room in the regular detention centres. The detention centre Běla-Jezova was originally planned for 260 people. Last week, they were housing more than 700 refugees, predominantly from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.
The detention conditions are terrible, and in no-way comply with international standards and EU regulations. Only one doctor is available to all detainees. Beyond that, there are only two social workers looking after several hundred refugees. The whole complex is surrounded by a wire-netting fence, and the refugees have no possibility to move freely at all. Not even the volunteers from the Organisation for Aid to Refugees (OPU), who come to offer services such as legal advice and legal representation, are able to enter the detention centres unhindered. In some cases, they have to wait for hours at the entrance to the Bela detention centre to finally be led by an armed guard into a small room where they communicate with refugees through a window. At the end of June, the government cancelled the funds for legal advice and legal representation for detained asylum seekers in breach of the existing EU Asylum Procedures and Return Directives, as well as in breach of the Dublin III Regulation. Yet, jurists still come to the detention centre exclusively in a voluntary capacity using small donations from the Czech public. These lawyers get even less information from the security personnel than the voluntary social workers receive. The jurists not only receive incomplete information, but also inaccurate information. Recently, a group of volunteers had been on site and reported that there were currently at least 60 children present in the detention centre in Bela Jezova. Many children were not been wearing shoes, were not dressed sufficiently, and were visibly hungry. The next day, two jurists visited and were told by the security guards that only about 10 children were being held in the detention centre. This clearly contradicts the observations the volunteers had made the day before on site.
Any person coming from the outside does not have access to the premises where the refugees are. Because of that, the conditions of the accommodation are examined inadequately. Tents that have been erected on site to house more people have further exacerbated the lack of available space for the detained refugees to move in. Sometimes the refugees are forced to stay in their rooms for days, deprived of access to natural light or air. Furthermore, according to refugees, the nutritional standards are very poor on site. Owing to several incidents, people held in the detention centres are guarded by armed policeman throughout meal times. For these inhumane conditions the asylum seekers have to pay 7200 Czech koruna per person per month. Converted into euro, that is about €266. A lot of refugees cannot raise this enormous amount of money and are issued with a debt note upon release. They have to hand over all of their money, with which they are going to pay the stay, and their mobile phones are also taken away, so they have trouble in informing their families of their whereabouts.
According to Article 5§1(f) of the European Convention on Human Rights, detention is only permissible for the purpose of deportation if the state has a clear perspective of deporting a person. According to the Dublin Regulation, the receiving country has six weeks to make such a transfer. Substantially, all refugees get arrested during the transit, having travelled through Hungary beforehand and Hungary is officially responsible for the asylum procedure of these people. However, Hungary has no capacity to take back any more refugees from the Czech Republic, which was confirmed openly by the Czech Interior Minister Milan Chovanec and the spokeswoman of the Czech Police, Ms. Rendlova. Due to the difficult situation in Hungary, almost all refugees are released after 6 to 8 weeks, having been stripped of their remaining money, and given an order to leave the country within 7 to 10 days. Following release, they can cross the Czech borders without hindrance and continue their journey towards their original final destination.
In addition, the requirement of Article 28 of the Dublin III Regulation, in case of detention of “Dubliners”, of setting the objective criteria in the law defining the risk of absconding, has not been transposed into the Czech legislation and there have been already judgments in Czech courts confirming the unlawfulness of such detention.
This all raises the question of why the refugees get arrested at all. Since the recent announcement by the German Government to allow Syrians to complete their asylum applications in Germany, the Czech police started to release Syrians from detention centres. However, Iraqis, Afghans and other nationalities have continued to be detained.*
In the meantime, the Czech Ministry of the Interior is negotiating with the municipalities across the Czech Republic to open further detention centres for refugees transiting to Western Europe.
Martin Rozumek, Executive Director
Organization for Aid to Refugees (OPU)
* Article written in Prague on 7 September 2015
Morten Kjærum new ECRE Board Chair
The Board of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) today appointed Morten Kjærum as Chair for an initial three year term. Mr. Kjærum replaces Andreas Kamm, Secretary General of the Danish Refugee Council, who led the ECRE Board for the past six years.
Morten Kjærum is currently Director of the Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law in Lund, Sweden. A Danish national, Mr. Kjærum is the immediate past Director of the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), and in 1991 was the founding Director of the Danish Institute for Human Rights.
“I am honoured to be appointed ECRE Board Chair, but am aware that I undertake this position during an unprecedented situation in modern times,” said Mr. Kjærum.
For further information:
As number of refugees arriving in Europe escalate, the JHA fails to inspire a humane response
On 14 September, the Justice and Home Affairs Council (JHA) adopted a decision for the relocation of 40,000 people seeking international protection from Italy and Greece, but failed to agree on the wider proposed target of 120,000 people. The decision includes the establishment of ‘hotspots’ to register and temporary accommodate asylum seekers, until a decision on their status is taken ‘quickly’. This does not exclude the use of detention, if necessary, with the ultimate aim to expel those receiving a negative decision on their claim.
“In principle the hotspots proposal could help manage the situation, but it all depends on the conditions, treatment, procedures in place, and on relocation commitments,” stated Judith Sunderland, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Otherwise detaining asylum seekers until an EU government agrees to take them could lead to mass prolonged detention.”
A strong accent is put on effective return of asylum seekers whose application is refused, including detention measures to apply ‘urgently and effectively’, according to the Return Directive. For this purpose, ministers undertook measures to better ensure the swift return of irregular migrants, by a more efficient use of the Schengen Information System (SIS).
JHA ministers welcomed the proposals launched by the European Commission last week. However, Member States failed to agree on all the proposals, notably on the relocation of a further 120,000 asylum seekers from those Member States receiving significant arrivals. .Moreover, Member States highlighted that the implementation of the decision will require flexibility. These proposals, together with the EU Action plan on return and the "Return Handbook", will be further discussed at an extraordinary JHA meeting on 22 September.
Furthermore, JHA ministers agreed to develop asylum system capacities in ‘third countries’, relating to those regions affected, including safe and sustainable reception, as well as adequate procedures for refugees. In concordance with the principle of non-refoulement, EU Member States are only allowed to return asylum seekers to their country of origin if it is considered ‘safe’. The Council will present a position on a common European Union list of safe countries of origin, which, on the basis of the Conclusions of July 2015, will certainly include Western Balkans.
Additionally, the Council’s Conclusions included measures to reinforce controls at external borders. Accordingly, Member States will reinforce TRITON and POSEIDON operations under Frontex, which is tasked to urgently deploy Rapid Intervention Teams. The EUNAVFOR military operation will also be stepped up, to seize and destroy smugglers’ vessels.
“It is shameful that some of the richest countries in the world cannot stand together and help those fleeing war and persecution in Syria and elsewhere”, commented Claude Moraes, President of the LIBE Committee, “it is evident that the numbers agreed on so far are not sufficient to deal with the growing number of people in need of protection”, he added.
During a Plenary Session of the European Parliament convened on Wednesday to debate the outcomes of Monday's JHA Council meeting, many MEPs deplored the Council Conclusions and called for a stronger and more united Europe to deal with the current refugee inflow. The Session called for an urgent Parliament vote on the proposal to relocate 120,000 refugees from the most affected countries.
The vote held on Thursday backed the Council's proposal to relocate 120,000 asylum seekers from frontline countries. "Parliament’s backing in record time of the European Commission’s 9 September proposal to relocate 120,000 asylum seekers sends a clear signal to EU home affairs ministers, who meet again on Tuesday 22 September, that it is high time to act and finally agree on this second emergency scheme", states the press release.
For further information:
- European Commission, Statement following the vote of the European Parliament in favour of an emergency relocation mechanism for a further 120,000 refugees, 17 September 2015
- Council of the European Union, Press release: Justice and Home Affairs Council, main results, 14 September 2015
- European Commission, Statement of the European Commission following the Extraordinary Justice and Home Affairs Council, 14 September 2015
- LIBE Committee, Press release: Refugee crisis: EU ministers have yet again failed to act, regrets EP Civil Liberties Committee Chair, 15 September 2015
- ECRE Weekly Bulletin, ECRE to JHA Council: All EU Member States must show solidarity and act immediately, 11 September 2015
Over 210,000 people applied for asylum in the EU in the second quarter of 2015
During the second quarter of 2015 (from April to June 2015), 213,200 people applied for protection for the first time in the European Union, up by 15% compared with the first quarter of 2015 and by 85% compared with the second quarter of 2014, Eurostat announced today.
In particular, the number of Syrians and Afghans rose considerably to reach almost 44,000 and 27,000 respectively. They represent the two main citizenships of first time asylum applicants in the EU over the second quarter 2015, accounting for a third of all first time applicants.
More than one out of three applied for asylum in Germany, or 80,900 first time applicants, followed by Hungary (32,700, or 15%), Austria (17,400, or 8%), Italy (14,900, or 7%), France (14,700, or 7%) and Sweden (14,300, or 7%).
Compared with the previous quarter, the number of first time asylum applicants in the second quarter 2015 notably jumped in the Netherlands (+159%), Latvia (+123%), Austria (+79%), Finland (+67%) and Denmark (+66%).
At the end of June 2015, almost 600,000 persons had their application for asylum protection in the EU still under consideration by the responsible national authority. Last year, at the end of June 2014, there were nearly 365,000. With 305,800 pending applications at the end of June 2015 (or 52% of the EU total), Germany had by far the largest share in the EU.
Refugee Crisis: Hungary in general crisis
As Human Rights Watch (HRW) has highlighted, Hungary is facing an influx of migrants and asylum seekers, with nearly 150,000 since the beginning of 2015 and reports of up to 3,000 migrants and asylum seekers crossing the border with Serbia every day in the first week of September.
Since the beginning of the year the Hungarian government has engaged in an anti-immigrant campaign and has adopted legislation, which entered into force on Tuesday 15 September, aimed at dealing with the migrant crisis. The new law provides - among others - for the criminalisation of irregular entry to Hungarian territory. It also criminalises the destruction of the fence, introduces the deployment of the army at the border and declares countries such as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Serbia as "safe third countries”.
Under the amended law, people attempting to break through the razor wire fence could be jailed for up to three years. What is more, Hungary has declared a state of emergency in two of its southern counties bordering Serbia and has also established “transit zones" along the borders with Serbia which are not considered to be on Hungarian territory. With the majority of people entering Hungary through Serbia, refugees held in those zones will have their asylum claims immediately rejected and will be subsequently deported on the basis of the “safe third country” concept; although families with children are currently exempted from this border procedure.
It is worth mentioning that from the first day of the law’s entry into force, 16 asylum requests were rejected within a few hours and subject to accelerated procedures on the grounds that Hungary - as of July - considers Serbia a "safe third country” for refugees.
The Hungarian Helsinki Committee, in its analysis of the above-mentioned amendments, emphasized that “A substantive decision on the asylum claims is a prerequisite for determining the culpability of asylum seekers. If, during the course of the criminal procedure related to illegal entry, the defendant requests international protection, the criminal procedure must be suspended”. It also highlighted that Serbia cannot be considered a “safe third country”, and pointed to the failure of the newly introduced criminal procedures to comply with procedural safeguards established under human rights and EU law.
With regards to the conditions at Roszke migrant detention, where people trying to cross the Hungarian borders are held, HRW reported "abysmal" conditions, after obtaining footage from inside the camp and interviewing current and former detainees. HRW criticized the Hungarian police practice to intercept and detain asylum seekers and migrants entering Hungary for days in insalubrious, overcrowded and inhumane conditions, lacking food and medical care.
For further information:
- ELENA Weekly Legal Update, "Hungary: Amendments to Asylum law come into force on 15 September, 11 September 2015
- Financial Times, "Hungary erects Serbian border fence in migrant crackdown", 15 September 2015
- BBC News, "Migrant crisis: Hungary declares emergency at Serbia border", 15 September 2015
- Reuters, "Hungary’s ‘transit’ zones will send refugees on a U-turn", 9 September 2015
- RTE News, "Merkel seeks special EU summit on refugee crisis", 15 September 2015
- Amnesty International, Hungary: Refugees blocked by forces, criminalized by laws, 15 September 2015
Greece: the gate to Europe?
The UN has estimated that some 30,000 refugees are on Greek islands, of which 20,000 reside on Lesvos. According to the authorities in Lesvos, the island receives approximately 2,000 irregular migrants and refugees per day, placing it as an area receiving some of the highest migration flows.
According to the latest news from Mytilene, capital of Lesvos, on Monday 7 September, 29,260 people departed from the island to the mainland of Greece. It is expected that the Tara Tepe park will be assigned as an identification centre for Syrians, while migrants of other nationalities will be identified and hosted in the first reception centre of Moria.
In the meantime, the mayor of Lesvos has submitted a comprehensive proposal for the management of refugees and irregular migrants arriving in Europe. The structure of the proposal, which was addressed to both Greek and European stakeholders, indicates three different pillars of action; local level, national level and European level. At the local level it calls for the equitable distribution of migrant/refugee arrivals and a faster processing of applications by means of regional registration centres situated near the arrival points. Additionally, it provides for the distribution of newcomers to the registration centres and, following completion of this procedure, for bus transfers to the ports of Sigri or Mytilene. At the national level it aims at achieving a high daily registration number by strengthening the local services (police and the coast guard), together with the assistance of personnel from other services. At the European level, the aim is for the screening of people in need of international protection, leading to their safe entry into the EU. This will be achieved mainly by establishing registration centres in Turkey, by providing refugees with the possibility of choosing their means of transportation and by relocating people to other EU countries.
Following the numerous incidents of refugees drowning in the Aegean Sea, a series of reports in newspapers indicates that the Greek-Turkish land border is now favoured by increasing numbers of refugees. A Facebook group called ‘Crossing No More’, numbering thousands of members, mainly from Iraq and Syria, are expressing their desire to reach Europe by land, thus avoiding the so called ‘boats of death’.
For further information
- Aljazeera, UN asks EU to do more for refugees, 09 September 2015
- Ethnos, All refugees and migrants left the island of Mytilene, 11 September 2015
- Ekathimerini, After refugee drownings, focus shifts to Greek-Turkish land border, 16 September 2015
- Ekathimerini, Deterred by sea deaths, Syrians choose land route from Turkey to Europe, 15 September 2015
Refugees' fundamental rights seriously violated on the Western Balkans route
Between 7 and 11 September, a number of refugees has been beaten by the police at the borders along the Western Balkans route, and many have spent nights in the open, due to lack of shelters, in problematic hygiene conditions and urgent need of medical assistance. Macedonian and Serbian authorities have not been able to provide sustainable solutions for people seeking international protection in Europe.
On Monday 7 September, the police was filmed beating refugees with clubs at the Greek-Macedonian border, and placed restrictions on entries. On Thursday the Macedonian Foreign minister said his country was considering building a Hungarian-style fence along the southern border. In the border area, refugees are sleeping in the open, as the authorities have not set up any tents or accommodation centre. Hygiene conditions are particularly problematic; there are no toilets or washing facilities and rubbish is scattered everywhere.
Reports from Gevgelija and Tabanovce documented many refugees sleeping outside the centres, due to lack of accommodation. At the same time, worsening weather conditions are causing further difficulties for refugees without shelters. Humanitarian organisations, such as Caritas and the Red Cross, continue to provide water, food and hygiene items; as well as medical assistance to refugees suffering from dehydration, leg injuries and other diseases. However, further help is needed, as humanitarian organisations don’t have the capacities to respond to the need of growing number of arrivals.
The registration procedure of ‘intention to seek asylum’ in Macedonia has been accelerated, thanks to new computer software and Macedonian Young Lawyers Association (MYLA)’s data entry clerks. However, with more arrivals concerns have been raised over the lack of protection sensitive system for screening and referral of different vulnerable groups of people, including unaccompanied children.
At the Serbian borders, refugees witnessed robberies and beatings; others reported constant risks of being trafficked and abuses along the Western Balkans route.
Although Serbian authorities, as well as international organisations and NGOs, provide basic assistance, the health and social system has been put under strain. Children are in need of further psychological support, while hygiene conditions remain particularly problematic. Refugees are in urgent need of medical assistance, being affected by dehydration and exhaustion, as well as inflammation and broken bones.
However, instead of building new permanent centres, Serbia is more likely to use EU funds in temporary accommodation facilities, as well as in the identification and return of migrants.
On Tuesday 8 September, a record of 7,000 refugees arrived at the Gevgelija asylum centre; similar numbers of arrivals were reported the following day. In Serbia, arrivals reached the peak of about 5,000 people on Thursday 10 September.
On Wednesday 9 September the European Commission issued a proposal which includes Macedonia and Serbia as safe countries of origin. The same day, a Communication announced high-level conference on Eastern Mediterranean/Western Balkans route to be held in autumn 2015.
See more detailed information in our Western Balkan route News Brief
UN Refugee Chief Guterres: EU must act now or become irrelevant in international affairs
The United Nations High Commissioner for refugees has warned the EU that if it does not act on the current refugee crisis, it will become irrelevant internationally.
“This is a moment of truth for the European Union. Either it acts, or it will become irrelevant in international affairs”, High Commissioner António Guterres said at a press conference in Brussels on 15 September.
Guterres compared the situation now to the aftermath of the Soviet intervention in Hungary in 1956, when 200,000 Hungarians escaped their home country.
“At that time, there was no Schengen, not even the EU Treaty of Rome,” Mr. Guterres said. “In the end, 180,000 were resettled from Austria and Yugoslavia to a total of 37 different countries – the first 100,000 of them in under ten weeks. The European Union did not make the same progress, which I regret”, he said, showing deep disappointment with the meagre results of Monday’s extraordinary meeting of the EU interior ministers and its failure to agree on a scheme spreading 120,000 people across the Member States.
Guterres criticised the newly established border controls in some countries that, according to him, create a very “worrisome situation for UNHCR”. “Borders will make people suffer, and facilitate the situation for smugglers and opportunists.” Last week, the head of the UN refugee agency laid out a set of key guidelines which he said should underpin all efforts to resolve the current refugee and migration crisis facing Europe. The European Union, he said, faced a "defining moment" while facing a situation that primarily is a refugee crisis, not only a migration phenomenon.
“In an ideal world, there would be a common European asylum policy and refugees could move freely within the EU. But that is not the case”, said Mr. Guterres, calling for legal alternatives to reach safety in Europe. With legal ways, fewer people in need of international protection will be forced to resort to smugglers and undertake dangerous, irregular journeys.
“A plan B is necessary. We can’t wait until October for another meeting of the European Council who then reverts back to the European Parliament, then back to the European Council… the Union has 500 million people – it’s a manageable situation, it only needs to be managed.”
High Commissioner Guterres also said that Hungary’s decision effectively to seal its border to refugees meant there was an immediate need to help Serbia cope with the expected deadlock. With 4,000 passing through Serbia every day hoping to get into Hungary, Guterres said Belgrade would not be able to manage the situation. “There is a need for an emergency plan to support Serbia,” he said.
Turning back refugees from the EU into the Balkans was “legally, morally and physically unacceptable,” he added.
For further information:
REPORTS & NGOs ACTIONS
ICRT Call for submissions
The International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) has released a call for submissions for their global interdisciplinary scientific symposium to be held in March 2016, in Mexico City. This symposium aims to explore a multidisciplinary approach as to how to honour the promise of the ‘right to rehabilitation for victims of torture’ as set out in the Convention against Torture as elaborated in General Comment three of the United Nations Committee Against Torture.
The topics for the abstract submission process spans three themes; trends and developments in research on rehabilitation methods, getting the requisite political, financial, legal, and public support for rehabilitation and cross-thematic, cross-sector knowledge sharing. More details and a full list of topics under each theme can be found here.
The deadline for abstract submissions is 1 October 2015.
For further information:
- 21 September 2015, Brussels, Urban dialogues: Migration and asylum in Europe’s cities, EUROCITIES
- 21 September 2015, Strasbourg, Report Launch No child should be left stateless, European Network on Statelessness and UNHCR
- 14-16 October 2015, The Hague, ECRE Annual General Conference & UNHCR NGO Consultations, ECRE and UNHCR
- 30 and 31 October 2015, Bologna, ELENA’s 30th Anniversary Advanced Course: Legal avenues for streghtening international protection in Europe, ECRE