Published on October 15, 2015
Czech ombudsman criticises conditions in refugee facility
The severe conditions which children and families with children have to endure in Bělá-Jezová constitute a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Objectively speaking, children in the facility have worse living conditions than inmates in Czech prisons. Bělá-Jezová is a former military facility where the living conditions are, in many ways, much worse than those in Czech prisons. Prison inmates are people who committed a crime and were convicted for it. On the other hand, the people in Bělá have not been convicted of any crime and no sentence has been imposed on them. The fact that hundreds of children are detained in this facility goes against our notion of the Czech Republic as a civilised country.
Under the Public Defender of Rights Act, I have a duty to inspect the living conditions of detained foreign nationals. I first visited the Facility for Detention of Foreigners in Bělá-Jezová in October 2014. The report on this visit was published on 18 February 2015. At that time, five children were placed in the facility. I noted already in this first report that the living conditions in the facility were unacceptable for children and recommended that the police do not place them there.
The second visit took place on 31 August 2015. 147 children were placed in the facility at that time. On 3 October, at the time of my most recent visit, 100 children were placed in the facility.
In view of the fact that the Bělá-Jezová detention facility is to be reserved primarily for families with children in the future, I believe it is necessary to inform the public of the living conditions there. The facts I found do not apply to all the detainees. The below is an overview of cases which I and my colleagues observed in the facility.
- Parents are humiliated in front of their children. They are transported to the facility in handcuffs. They are detained behind a four-metre fence with barbed wire. They cannot explain the reasons for this situation to their children.
- They do not have sufficient clothing and shoes for their children. Instead of warm shoes, they can only provide them with plastic sandals (“crocs”).
- The children are terrified by the constant presence of uniformed security guards and police officers.
- Due to the lack of other activities available in the fenced-off area, the children often play “cops and prisoners”. Another “game” of theirs is trying to dig a tunnel under the fence.
- There is a small playground, which is, however, accessible to children only for limited periods of time. Some of the children cannot access it at all. The “playground” actually consists of one slide and one climbing frame.
- While there is a playroom in the facility, it is not accessible to all of the children due to capacity reasons. Some of the children has no access to leisure-time activities.
- The mattresses are often unwashable and in a condition that does not meet even the basic standards of hygiene. There are iron bars in the windows and no curtains. Every night, the detainees are dragged out of their beds to be counted by the police who sometimes wear helmets and masks.
- If the children are asleep, they must be woken up by their parents and stand up.
- Some of the mothers have lost touch with their children who are staying in Germany with other family members; they have used up their telephone card for two telephone calls and there is nothing else they can do. When they are released, they do not know where to look for their children.
- The detained foreign nationals are not sufficiently informed of their situation. They do not understand why they were placed in the facility, which they consider to be a prison. They do not know why their mobile phones, watches, shoelaces, belts, money etc. have been confiscated.
- A major issue is the language barrier in communication between the detainees and the facility’s physicians, which often results in misunderstandings and mutual distrust. It is difficult for the doctors to make a diagnosis; they have to “explain” the planned procedures using hand gestures.
- Lack of information is also caused by the absence of legal advice. The foreigners accommodated in the gym and container units were not aware that free legal advice was available. However, all the detainees have a right to legal advice under the law.
- In Czech prisons, all the inmates are entitled to outings, warm food, a chair, a wardrobe and free access to the toilet. Many of the foreign nationals detained in Bělá-Jezová are not provided even with this minimum.
- A family of four placed in the facility for 30 days has to pay the total of CZK 29,040 for their stay.
I can only speculate how traumatised they will be in the future and what kind of consequences it will have for their future lives. What I know for certain is what they are going through is completely unnecessary.
The fact that children are extremely vulnerable and that detention has a negative impact on their mental and physical health is confirmed by a number of expert studies. According to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, detained children are often traumatised and unable to understand why they are being “punished” when they committed no crime.
The European Court of Human Rights considers the Convention on the Rights of the Child and Article 3 of the European Convention breached if a facility exhibits the following characteristics:
- The facility is inhabited mostly by adults;
- The facility is visibly under police supervision;
- The facility cannot provide children with entertaining activities.
Bělá-Jezová meets all three of these characteristics. Such makeshift conditions would probably be acceptable in a refugee camp for thousands of people near a war zone. However, they are completely unacceptable in Central Europe. I believe that our country is perfectly capable of providing a couple hundreds of people with living conditions corresponding to 21st century standards and that we do not have to traumatise their children in a way we would never traumatise our own.
These people did nothing wrong. They have not been convicted of any crime. In spite of this, we let them suffer. This is completely unnecessary.
Slideshow to the press conference (Czech): https://www.slideshare.net/secret/kU7q2RAaSVxNc
Photos from the visits to Bělá-Jezová
Report - Evaluation of visits to Bela-Jezova (August and October 2015) (1.6 MB, Adobe Acrobat document)
Report on Visit to the Facility for Detention of Foreigners Bělá-Jezová (August 2015)