Syrian refugees on Prague-Berlin train accuse Slovakia of ten week imprisonment

Illustrative photo: CTK

According to Czech Interior Minister Milan Chovanec, around 60 Syrian refugees have applied for asylum in the Czech Republic so far this year. Meanwhile, far greater numbers of refugees are traversing the country from Hungary and then Slovakia to get to cities inside Germany, which is anticipating around 800,000 asylum applications this year. Dominik Jun travelled with one group of Syrian migrants, boarding a train in Prague’s central station bound for Berlin. They related a story of imprisonment in Slovakia, being deprived of communications with the outside world, and even tear gas being used against small children.

Illustrative photo: CTK
It is 6:30 in the morning on Saturday, September 5, and I am sitting in a train which is just departing Prague’s Hlavní nádraží and heading north towards Germany, first stopping at Dresden, and then reaching its final destination of Berlin. Sitting all around me are a group of around 100 Syrian refugees comprising men, women and young children. They all have rather battle-worn expressions, although their spirits appear high, and are often laughing and perhaps relieved that they are at last about to travel towards the proverbial Promised Land. One of the group, a man I would estimate in his late 30s, has kindly agreed to sit and talk to me and relate his story.

Thank you for agreeing to talk to me. Could I ask you for your name?

“My name is Samir Kalago.”

How did you get to Prague?

“It is a long story. First I went from Syria to Turkey; then through Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary. But I would not want to live in Hungary.”

Because there has been tension there between refugees and authorities? Recently, many people were trapped at a train station, which authorities refused to allow to leave for Germany. I supposed your group doesn’t feel particularly welcome in Hungary...

“Yes. Exactly. After arriving in Hungary, we went to the train station and bought a ticket from Budapest to Berlin. I don’t know why, but the train went to [stopped in] Slovakia. The Slovakian police caught myself and many more Syrian people and kept us in prison for two-and-a-half months. In Slovakia. We don’t know why. We are fleeing the Syrian war. We go to Europe because we need a base, we need work, a home; we want to work with Europe’s people because of the freedoms they enjoy. I don’t know why the Slovaks imprisoned us for two-and-a-half months.”

Migrants wait near the Keleti Railway Station in Budapest, Hungary, September 2, 2015, photo: CTK
So the feeling is that Germany is more welcoming to refugees?

“Yes.”

Many Syrians, for example, wouldn’t consider asking for asylum in the Czech Republic? Are you just travelling through? You definitely feel that Germany is more welcoming...

“Yes, all Syrian people feel welcome in Germany.”

How big is your group? How many of your are travelling together?

[Samir consults with others]

“Around 150....just Syrian...around 100 Syrians ended up in Slovakia and were imprisoned there.”

In a migrant camp.

“No, not a camp. A prison. Because there was no internet. No access to communications with the outside world. And my family had no idea where I was. And we are angry because why were we imprisoned?”

Are you aware that in some European countries there is tension, maybe xenophobia, or fear? How do your group respond when you hear people say that they don’t want you?

“There were people angry with the Syrian people in the camp. Police. Big police used gas [spray] against children one or two years old [points to group of children in the carriage].”

And then you travelled to the Czech Republic?

“After this two-and-a-half month stay in Slovakia – and you see on TV that Germany is welcoming Syrians and you can cross your fingers and hope – then we had to turn our cheek [or backs] on Slovakia. This was yesterday.”

And now you are heading to Berlin.

“Yesterday, we were freed from prison.”

Tell me about conditions in Syria. Does it feel that you have to leave at the moment because of the Assad regime on the one side and Islamic State on the other. The country is in a poor state...

Refugees arrive at the train station in Saalfeld, Germany, September 5, 2015, photo: CTK
“Yes. The Syrian people have no idea what to do. Because you see death everywhere. Assad versus the Free Syrian Army. There is more and more armed conflict in Syria. You don’t know where to go. No place is safe. There is no safety in Syria.”

What is your hope for the future? Both for yourselves, and for Syria. Do you hope that you can find a home in Germany, and then maybe in a few years Syria will be OK again?

“[Laughs] I want peace. In all countries. I like Germany because it is the best country for the Syrian people. The Syrian people like Germany. I would like every country to be welcoming to Syrians.”