Majority of Czech politicians close ranks behind government in wake of UN criticism

UN Human Rights Commissioner Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, photo: UN

The UN Human Rights Commissioner has accused the Czech authorities of systematically violating the human rights of migrants. In a statement released on Thursday the UN official listed practices that he said violated international conventions, such as lengthy detentions and strip-searches of refugees. The accusation elicited a sharp response from Czech politicians, but also calls for a more liberal approach from some quarters.

UN Human Rights Commissioner Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein,  photo: UN
According to the UN Human Rights Commissioner human rights violations against migrants in the Czech Republic are not random and isolated incidents but appear to be part of “an integral policy by the Czech government designed to deter migrants from entering the country or staying there”. The commissioner cited lengthy detentions of up to 90 days in prison-like facilities, the fact that migrants have their cell phones taken away, are subjected to a strip search and made to pay for the time spent in detention. The accusations elicited a sharp response from Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka.

“This criticism is unwarranted. The Czech Republic strives to observe international conventions at all times and the migrant crisis is no exception.”

Bohuslav Sobotka,  photo: CTK
The prime minister said UN officials were welcome to come to the Czech Republic and assess the situation in person. “We will be glad to show them all our detention facilities and I think that upon a personal inspection they would find that migrants have standard, decent and reasonable conditions” Mr. Sobotka said. Interior Minister Milan Chovanec responded to one of the most sensitive accusations on the UN commissioner’s list – the detention of children.

“We are not detaining or imprisoning children. They are in these facilities with their parents, who are in detention because they crossed the border illegally. We feel it is more humane to keep families with children together rather than separating them. The UN commissioner for human rights appears to base his accusations on media reports and on a report from the Ombudswoman’s office. It would be better if he came to see the situation with his own eyes.”

While parties right-and-left of centre closed ranks behind the cabinet on the migrant issue, rejecting the UN criticism, lone critics such as the justice minister or the Czech minister for human rights, Jiří Dienstbier, are pushing for a more liberal approach. Mr. Dienstbier, who has long criticized the fact that children are being held in detention facilities, is now questioning the practice of making refugees pay for the time spent in detention centres. He told the ctk news agency on Thursday that he would submit proposals on how to improve the situation to the cabinet.

Milan Chovanec,  photo: CTK
Despite isolated calls for a more liberal policy in the treatment of migrants, the general policy line on the migrant issue is unlikely to change. According to a recent CVVM poll 50 percent of Czechs do not want the country to accept migrants under any circumstances and 40 percent say they should only be given temporary asylum. In a rare show of support opposition politicians have also backed the government in its policy and there have even been attempts to play down some of the Czech president’s anti-Islamic statements –also highlighted in the UN report – with one MP saying the president was merely opening up issues which need to be discussed.