NPM in migrant detention centres


Note:This article is one of the NPM TRAVELBOOK series written by Mr Pavel Doubek and invited by Covenants Watch (CW), Taiwan. The original text was written in English and was translated by Yi-Ching Tsai, CW’s researcher.

Author/Pavel Doubek (Czech scholar and lawyer formerly working at Czech NPM)
Translator/Yi-Ching Tsai (Researcher of Covenants Watch)

In 2015, Europe was struck by the so-called “migration crisis”. Hundreds of thousands of people, especially refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq reached the European borders. Their destinations were western and northern Europe, in particular Germany, Sweden and France. Hundreds of them, however, died in an attempt to sail through the Mediterranean or to drive in crowded smugglers’ trucks.

Since the Czech Republic is located in Central Europe, it made a transit country for most migrants bound for western and northern Europe. Some succeeded and crossed unnoticed the territory, some of them, however, were arrested by the Police and put into detention. A total of 8,563 illegal migrants were arrested by the police in 2015. Czech police did not differentiate the conditions of the migrants, and thus even families with children were put in detention. The average length of detention was 40 days, but in some cases even longer (up to 90 days).

There are currently 2 asylum reception centres and 3 detention centres for foreigners in the Czech Republic. The asylum reception centres are used to detain asylum seekers for the time required to complete the basic procedures for entry (e.g. identification procedure and medical examination). The second type of the facility is dedicated to migrants who are awaiting the mandatory extradition from the territory. [1] Although it’s normal and legitimate for sovereign states to maintain control over their borders and restrict the personal liberty of migrants in the above two types of places, but migrants are also entitled to protection under universal human rights standards.

The Czech National Preventive Mechanism was very proactive at the outbreak of the migration crisis. It decided to conduct an unannounced visit outside its original annual plan to one detention facility for migrants, named Bělá-Jezová, which is located in forests in a remote area north-east of Prague. This was proven a wise decision and a crucial action, as I’ll show you in the following story, that successfully brought the world’s attention to the serious human rights violations of migrants in the Czech Republic.

Note 1:Unlike correctional facilities that are subordinated directly to one specialized agency (Prison Service of the Ministry of Justice), the management of detention centres for foreigners is divided between three separate authorities under the Ministry of Interior:
(a) Refugee Facilities Administration, a specialized agency responsible for the overall operation of the facility;
(b) the Healthcare Institute, responsible for the health-care in the facility; and
(c) the Foreign Police Directorate of the Police, which is in charge of administration of the police power in the facility.

Uncovering the real situations in “Bělá-Jezová”

The Czech NPM’s first visit to Bělá-Jezová was carried out in August 2015. Besides lawyers from the NPM Unit and two interpreters for Farsi, Arabic and Kurdish languages, the Public Defender of Rights (Ombudsman) herself also joined the monitoring group.

After arrival to the facility, the entry was obstructed by the facility staff with a 20-minute delay due to the absence of the facility managers. Another delay was caused by the head of the facility’s police department. He refused to allow NPM members to bring and use their cameras in the premises of the facility. After a tough negotiation, he finally agreed and the team could start with monitoring.

We soon found that the overall conditions of detention and treatment of migrants were inadequate and far below human rights standards. Although the original capacity were 270 beds, 659 persons were detained in the facility at that time, including 142 children, 5 unaccompanied foreigners between 15-18 years and 13 asylum seekers.

Normally, a migrant who wishes to apply for asylum should be placed to the asylum reception centres, rather than the foreigner detention centres. However, the number of migrants was far beyond the capacity of the Czech authorities at that time, and that’s why some asylum seekers were placed in Bělá-Jezová. It was, of course, against the Czech laws. On the other hand, except for some migrants whose asylum applications were rejected and were being expelled, many migrants detained in Bělá-Jezová had no practical opportunity to apply for asylum status.

The detainees did not have enough clothes; many did not even have shoes. Some of them did not receive basic hygienic needs, even after several weeks of stay in the facility. The living premises were dirty and there were even reports of an epidemic outbreak of salmonellosis. Some of the detainees had no free access to the toilet and fresh water.

Situations in the Bělá-Jezová: photo provided by the Public Defender of Rights (Ombudsman) of the Czech Republic

Due to the language barrier, migrants lacked basic information about what their current situation is and what will follow. They did not understand why they were placed in a facility whose conditions resembled a prison. They did not understand why they must hand in their watches, shoelaces, belts, money, etc. Because the police removed their cell phones, they were not allowed to contact their relatives. In some cases, families were separated against their will.

Anxiety and depression were exacerbated by a high barbed wire fence around the facility and the presence of police officers, including heavy-armoured police units with police dogs. The police officers with balaclavas and helmets were even present during the meal distribution. Despite all these terrible conditions, every person including children over the age of 18 months was subject to detention fee of 242 CZK (318 NT) per day. After 30 days of detention, each individual was therefore forced to pay 7,260 CZK (9554 NT). The price for the four members’ family was, therefore, CZK 29,040 (38,237 NT).

At the end of the visit, the Public Defender of Rights informed in person the director of the facility about the most serious problems and asked him to take several measures immediately, including to provide proper food, secure appropriate clothes and shoes, ensure free access to the toilet and running water, etc. The NPM’s observation of deficiencies was elaborated and finalized into a visit report within 9 days, in which the NPM emphasized that the material conditions, the overall organization and personnel resources of the facility were inadequate to take care of that large number of detainees. The report concluded that these deficiencies reached the level of ill-treatment.

The NPM sent the report to the three competent authorities under the Ministry of the Interior, providing them with a 14-day deadline to respond to its recommendations and inform about the adopted measures.  [2] Although the authorities failed to response in due time, at least two high-level members of the Czech Government, the Minister of Justice and the Minister of Human Rights, decided to further look into the seriousness of the situation in detention by joining in the NPM’s follow-up visit two months later. The symbolic significance of their presence would prove to be an important factor that put the issue in national and international spotlight.

Note 2:The authorities directly responsible for Bělá-Jezová are the three bodies listed in note 2. The Czech Ombudsman also informed the Minister of Interior, the Minister of Labor and Social Affairs, the Minister of Education, Youth and Sports, the Minister of Justice and the Minister for Human Rights of the NPM’s findings in Bělá-Jezová.

The follow-up visit to Bělá-Jezová: another shocking fact

In order to assess whether and to what extent the responsible authorities adopted its recommendations, the Czech NPM decided to conduct another visit to Bělá-Jezová in October 2015, again with the personal presence of the Ombudsman. As noted above, the NPM team was accompanied by two ministers this time.  [3] 

However, the presence of the Ombudsman herself and two members of the Czech government did not prevent the head of the police unit from obstructing the visit by refusing the use of cameras. Once again, after some time of negotiating, he finally agreed and thus the monitoring could be initiated.

Although some improvements were found during the follow-up visit, the general situation in the facility remained unsatisfactory. The number of detainees was reduced to 397, but 25% of the population was made up of children. A number of migrants still lacked basic needs. Even very young children were not provided with adequate shoes and wore only slippers, despite the fact that the weather was getting colder in this season.

Photo @ PxHere, CC0 Public Domain

Nevertheless, just when we were going to finish the visit, we accidentally discovered several container-type modular cabins in the forest outside of the official part of the facility. When we approached there, some detainees were raising banners with the words: “We are refugees, not prisoners!” and “Help us, please!” This came as a big shock, as the manager of the facility didn’t informed the NPM members of the existence of such additional accommodation premises at all.

A closer examination found that 56 men, including children, were accommodated in this cage-like space, which was completely enclosed with 22 cabins grouped in a rectangle and covered with a welded mesh from above. According to the detainees we interviewed, they were not allowed to leave this place and were subject to regular counting by police (some of them wore helmets and balaclavas); neither could they participate in any activities. They were treated by the police officers and the facility’s staff in an indecent way, who nudged them, spat before them, and called them as “terrorists”. Besides, the detainees were routinely handcuffed while being transferring to another unit.

Unofficial accommodation cabins in Bělá-Jezová: photo provided by the Public Defender of Rights (Ombudsman) of the Czech Republic

Given the serious conditions in this “unit”, the NPM determined that the treatment reached the level of degrading treatment, which is prohibited by Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The ombudsman stated in the visit report: “It is not possible to fully convey neither the conditions in which men were held nor their psychological state of mind. One can only wonder at the level of dehumanization, the conditions under which the children are held and the degrading treatment that was accepted by the management of the facility.” The Czech NPM subsequently turned to the Ministry of the Interior with 12 specific reform measures as well as various systematic proposals to prevent ill-treatment from happening again.

Note 3:It has to be noted that the two ministers were not members of the NPM team, and they were supervising the detention conditions on their own official capacity.

Impact of the NPM visits

The results of the follow-up visit showed that the practice of ill-treatment with detainees in the migrant detention centre persists. These findings, especially the vivid images and testimonies collected from the NPM visits, were widely shared by several global media outlets that led to an intense debate on human rights in the Czech Republic, both at domestic and international level.

For example, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, sharply criticized the Czech government and called for immediate action to stop the ill-treatment while praising the critical efforts by the Czech NPM. Although exposing the conditions in the Bělá-Jezová detention facility to the international community was neither a pleasant moment for the Czech officials nor for the ordinary Czech citizens, it had a positive impact. It placed Czech government under close international scrutiny and also encouraged the NPM and national civil society organizations to mobilize more pressure on the government to respect the human rights of migrants.

Pjoto by Thomas Hawk @ flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

In 2016, the Czech NPM conducted another visit to the facility and discovered that the facility was nearly empty. Only 9 female migrants were detained. The gradual improvement in the facility’s living conditions can be attributed to the overall decrease in the number of migrants.

However, looking back on the events that happened almost five years ago, one should wonder. Would the degrading treatment of migrants in the unknown facility hidden in the woods be revealed to the world if there was no NPM? Would the public sympathize with the migrant’s situations if there were no such powerful evidence collected by the NPM on site?

1. Public Defender of Rights, Report on Visit to the Facility for Detention of Foreigners Bělá-Jezová (August 2015)
2. Public Defender of Rights, Evaluation of the visits of the Facility for Detention of Foreigners Bělá-Jezová (August and October 2015)
3. Public Defender of Rights, Visits of the Facility for Detention of Foreigners Bělá-Jezová (December 2016)
4. United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, Zeid urges Czech Republic to stop detention of migrants and refugees (October 2015)