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November 18, 2019
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Commentary: The Czech Interior Minister's "Potemkin village" of a refugee facility

6.11.2015 20:44
The facility for detaining foreign natiionals in Bělá-Jezová. (Photo:  Website of the Czech Interior Mnistry, Refugee Facilities Administration)
The facility for detaining foreign natiionals in Bělá-Jezová. (Photo: Website of the Czech Interior Mnistry, Refugee Facilities Administration)

Czech Interior Minister Chovanec invited European diplomats to visit the detention facility for refugees at Bělá-Jezová yesterday. Journalists from Aktuálně.cz report that in preparation for the visit he removed most of the detainees from the facility and installed completely new benches and a children's playground on the grounds.

At the end of the 18th century, the priest Grigory Potemkin is said to have painted scenery of pretty villages and installed it on the banks of the Dnieper to please Empress Catherine II and her guests as they traveled to Crimea in order to demonstrate how prosperous the country was. Ever since then the term "Potemkin village" has referred to something that covers up reality and misleads observers with attractive scenery.

According to modern historians, of course, the story about Potemkin is greatly exaggerated and is probably a legend. What about Chovanec and "his" Bělá-Jezová?

Worse than a Potemkin village - absurd

The facility there (and similar ones throughout the Czech Republic) have long been criticized by experts, international institutions, NGOs, the Office of the Public Defender of Rights, and some politicians. The basic reasons for this can be summarized as follows:  The detention of asylum-seekers does not conform to European law; the detainees are treated like prisoners, if not worse; they do not know why they have been detained there or how long they will be detained there; they do not have interpreters available; their health care is insufficient, as are their hygienic conditions; and they are being humiliated and intimidated there.

Moreover, the entire matter is absolutely absurd because once these people are released from detention, they just get back on the same transportation route to Germany that the Czech Police removed them from in the first place. They just have several months or weeks more of suffering behind them when they go.

Here are more specifics about the criticism of the facility at Bělá-Jezová:

- In August a Regional Court decided that the Czech Republic is not allowed to detain asylum-seekers just on the basis of concern that they might fleed. 

- It is precisely that "flight risk", however, that is almost always the automatic reason for these foreign nationals to be detained in the Czech Republic. According to lawyer Zuzana Pavelková, that not only contravenes the decision of the Regional Court, but also the case law of both the European Court of Human Rights and the European Court of Justice.

- "We're talking about a former military facility in which there are worse conditions, in many respects, than in the Czech prisons. People in the prisons have committed crimes and been convicted and sentenced. At Bělá, people are detained who have never been convicted of anything and have not been sentenced. The fact that hundreds of children have passed through this facility contravenes our idea of the Czech Republic as a civilized country," Czech Public Defender of Rights Anna Šabatová said last month after visiting the facility.

- The director of the Organization for Aid to Refugees, Martin Rozumek, said in an interview for Swiss television that Czech facilities for asylum-seekers are overcrowded, that he has seen barefoot, hungry children in them, and that the people there are being detained illegally.

- Czech Justice Minister Robert Pelikán said on Czech Television that "the letter of the asylum laws and this reality are not compatible" and that he expects lawsuits to be filed against the Czech state over its detention of foreign nationals. In his view the asylum-seekers detained there are sometimes worse off than prisoners.

- The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has charged the Czech Republic with systematically violating asylum-seekers' human rights.

- The European Court of Human Rights has called on the Czech Republic to relocate an Afghan family from Bělá-Jezová to a facility that does not violate Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

What about the children? Do they have a place to play?

"We saw children's playrooms and a playground here, I am informed that there is a nice nursery school here, and we heard about the recreational activities that the assigned staffer does with the children here," said the Czech Labor and Social Affairs Minster after her tour of the facility yesterday; that ministry is also in charge of protecting children's rights.

The minister said that while the facility is not ideal at first glance, it "can be withstood" as a temporary residence. Sharper experts or politicians believe children should never be in such a facility, but our minister apparently believes nice new swings are enough.

The report by the Public Defender of Rights after her visit to the facility stated the following, among other findings:  "The children are terror-stricken by the omnipresent police officers and uniformed security services. Because there are no other activities, these children living behind barbed wire play 'police and prisoners'. Another of their 'games' is to attempt to dig a tunnel beneath the fence to reach the outside world. The small playground is accessible only at certain times. Some have never visited it. What is meant here by a playground is one climbing structure and one slide. There is a playroom for children elsewhere on the campus, but not all children can fit in it. Some children have no access to any recreational activities."

Now, of course, the Public Defender of Rights is acknowledging that conditions in the camp are completely different from those that prevailed there in August and at the beginning of October. "We appreciate this change. However, we will only be able to do a final assessment after another monitoring visit," she said.

According to the journalists who managed to visit the detention facility yesterday, the detained asylum-seekers have also noticed that conditions in the camp have changed for the better during the past week. Does this mean Minister Chovanec acknowedges his errors?

Will this be the stable state of affairs there now? Is it even, perhaps, a sign that our politicians are changing the approach they take to asylum-seekers?

Not from what I've seen of Chovanec. My money is on this all being a tragicomic "Potemkin village".

mik, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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refugee, UN, Verdict, war



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