Czech NGOs call for better approach to migrants

Bělá-Jezová detention centre, photo: Czech Television

A consortium of 18 Czech non-governmental organizations working with migrants last week issued a document in which it outlines the basic principles the country should adhere to in dealing with immigrants. The principles relate to the country’s asylum policy, social rights, education, work and other spheres. I spoke to the head of the Organisation for Aid to Refugees Martin Rozumek about their concerns and what triggered the joint initiative.

Martin Rozumek,  photo: CTK
“We are shocked by the atmosphere here in the Czech Republic and we do not want to always just criticize the government but also propose some suggestions how to improve the Czech asylum and migration policy and that’s the reason why we (18 NGOs) decoded to come together and prepare such a document. It pertains to migration and integration of immigrants who have lived here for a longer period of time but there is also a chapter on asylum seekers and refugees which is of course also important.”

I read the document and I have to say that it is fairly general –can you be more specific now and tell me what it is that you are criticising and what needs changing.

“The main problem from my point of view –and that of the Organization for Aid to Refugees – is the situation of refugees in the Czech Republic, the detention of migrants and the low quality of asylum decisions. For us the main problem is how the Czech Republic treats asylum seekers who are on their way to other countries very often to join their family members in other EU member states and this policy of detention and deterrence is something that must be criticized not only by us but by the whole consortium.”

So you are saying that the Czech Republic is unfriendly towards migrants?

“Yes, for sure. We think that the Czech government somehow pursues a policy of discrimination and exploitation of migrants in many ways and we believe that the government must fundamentally change the basic principles of integration and migration policy in the Czech Republic.”

Last week Justice Minister Robert Pelikan said conditions in detention centres for migrants must improve –he called them “semi-prisons”. What needs to be changed? You visit them often…

Bělá-Jezová detention centre,  photo: Czech Television
“There are many changes needed. The Ombudswoman said already at the beginning of last year that the conditions in the Bělá-Jezová detention centre are so bad that they violate Article 3 of the Convention on Fundamental Human Rights and Freedoms –if you look at the living conditions and hygiene conditions. And since then the conditions have deteriorated even further. At the beginning of 2014 there were some 60 detainees in the detention centre, this year there were 700 detainees in the same place and the conditions have greatly worsened. So it is obvious that Article 3 of the European Convention is in question here and we believe that the Czech government does not comply with its international obligations. Moreover, there are many reasons why we – the Organization for Aid to Refugees and other NGOs – believe that the detention of refugees is illegal. The basic reasoning is that it doesn’t serve the purpose –ie. the Dublin transfer to the responsible country – Hungary – does not take place. And if there is a lack of purpose it means that the detention is illegal according to Article 5 F of the Convention on Fundamental Human Rights and Freedoms. ”

Czech Interior Minister Milan Chovanec maintains that the country is acting in line with Czech laws and adhering to the rules governing Schengen –what do you say to those arguments?

“My opinion is that Mr. Chovanec does not know the basic principles of the Czech Constitution and that is that the country’s international obligations and European legislation must be applied before the national legislation. So it is true that according to Czech law one could argue that the policy of the Interior Ministry is within the frame of the Czech national legislation, but it is clear that the policy does not respect the Czech Republic’s international obligations and human rights treaties.”

You say in the document that migrants are only viewed as a security threat – would you elaborate on that?

Photo: CTK
“Yes, the problem is that the interior ministry, the police and secret service are basically the legislators of migration, integration and asylum in the Czech Republic. They jointly propose the main changes to the country’s migration and asylum laws. And we think that other views must be considered –labour market experts, demographic experts, universities and schools…big firms have announced that they need new workers, that they are able to offer jobs to 5,000 Syrians, that they could employ 15,000 immigrants at the present time…so we believe that the future asylum and migration policy must be drafted or constructed by many more actors including NGOs and migrant assisting organizations. Only then will we have a law that is modern and will respect human rights.”

What do you think is behind the trend of keeping a very tight asylum law?

“I think it is a way of thinking based on the assumption that every foreigner is a threat and it seems that the interior ministry and police believe that they are there to defend the country from immigrants and foreigners. Unfortunately this affects students, it affects academicians, workers, businessmen, and we think it is some kind of paranoia on the part of the Interior Ministry and what is sad is that other ministries are not very active to change this attitude. So, as I said, the Czech asylum and migration policy is constructed by the interior ministry, the police and the secret services and then of course the final result of such a policy is always restrictive and always full of obstacles for asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants in the Czech Republic.”

A growing number of ordinary people are now offering to help migrants, but the vast majority of Czechs are still opposed to quotas and the idea of more migrants coming. Why is that do you think?

Anti-Islam demonstration,  photo: Venca24,  CC BY 4.0
“In our opinion the issue of migration and asylum is still quite new in our country. After 40 years of communism we became a homogenous country of Czechs and a few Roma and mainly the older generation is not used to traveling abroad and finds it harder to accept foreigners. And then, of course, there is the role of the media which was very negative. In the last two to three years there was very bad reporting on asylum and migration issues and on the issue of the so-called Islamic State, very few positive examples, very few objective articles or objective information which would be supported by relevant statistics. There has been an improvement on the part of the media now, in the last three to four months, there are more journalists who a well-informed about the situation, who are able to follow the press in Western countries, so there is an improvement in the work of the media, but if you look at the results of public opinion polls the vast majority of Czechs are still against migrants – I think the main reasons are the ones I just mentioned. ”

The reason I asked is that I wanted to know whether you think the public is influenced by politicians and the media or whether the government is taking a populist line here because of public opinion…

“Sure, politicians are afraid of being more open on the issues of migration and asylum. They have in mind the results of polls – according to Eurobarometer 80 percent of Czechs are against refugees and according to another poll it is 70 percent – and politicians are very well aware of these numbers and they are afraid to say something different. So when you talk to them in private many of them accept that it is not so easy to say that immigrants and refugees are a threat to our country, but they are afraid that if they say this openly, publicly they would pay a price for it. But we see that even among government politicians, in the lower house and the Senate there are more and more politicians who have the courage to voice a different opinion. Mr. Pelikan, the justice minister is one, and Mr. Dienstbier, the minister for human rights, is another. And we think there will be more politicians who will openly say what they really think and will not be afraid that their party will lose points on that issue. ”

You are obviously not happy with the government’s asylum policy –are communication channels between you -or NGOs working with migrants- and the government open, or is there a communication problem?

Photo: Radek Duchoň
“There is certainly a communication problem because the Interior Ministry’s department of asylum and migration policy is not open to communication at all. We discuss these issues with other experts and some advisors to ministers but basically the discussion between the ministry’s asylum department and NGOs is non-existent. This is a big problem and don’t know why, but we think there is a certain paranoia on the part of the Interior Ministry and they do not want to share their news and views with us.”

What kind of impact are you hoping this manifesto will have?

“We hope it will be a good basis for a debate in Parliament with open-minded MPs and senators and our goal is to achieve that the migration issue is not considered only from the security angle. So we are trying to “sell” this manifesto to the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, we also sent it to foreign embassies and the Open Society Fund in the hope that they too will discuss the issue with the government and also with the media, because we think that as soon as public opinion is more welcoming politicians will probably speak in a different language about asylum seekers and migrants. ”