PRAGUE (Reuters) - When two young Syrian refugees crossed the Czech border from Slovakia in a smuggler’s car last month they thought their dangerous 24-day journey to Germany would be over in hours.
Instead the 23-year old childhood friends were arrested, handcuffed, strip-searched and detained for six weeks by Czech authorities, with only sporadic access to legal aid or interpreters and little chance to contact families.
“They handcuffed us and took us to a police station somewhere underground,” said one of the Syrians using the nickname Ramez. “They told us that we entered the country without a visa and that it would take only a couple of hours. In the end it was 40 days.”
Their experience has been shared by hundreds of others subject to strict immigration policies enforced by the Czech authorities. Those complement a tough stance on immigration that has put the Czechs alongside Slovakia, Hungary and Romania on a collision course with more lenient EU partners led by Germany.
The country’s public human rights officer said conditions some refugees were kept in, with poor sanitary conditions and little access to medical or legal assistance, were worse than in prisons.
The Czech Republic lies to the north of the main migration routes taking refugees through the Balkans to Germany. It has seen only a fraction of the hundreds of thousands passing through Hungary and Austria on their flight from war or poverty.
Lengthy detention of those who come through the Czech Republic mostly ends with their release with an order to leave the country, raising questions over the usefulness of the policy. Rights groups say the harshness may be intentional, as a way of convincing migrants not to pass through the country.
The practice differs from the approach by Hungary or Austria which have been letting migrants pass through on their way to their ultimate destinations in Germany and other European countries further north and west.
“Police in other countries actually helped us, not like here. Why do Czech police behave like this, and in Austria they don’t?” Ramez told Reuters upon release from the detention center in Vysni Lhoty in eastern Czech Republic.
He declined to give his real name out of ear for fear for family still in Syria but showed Reuters his Syrian passport.
Police took away their phones and money, he said, and authorities charged about 10 euros per day for bed and board.
Interior Minister Milan Chovanec defended the Czech policy, saying the existing law obliges police to detain people entering illegally and try to return them across the border.
“We are not a xenophobic country. On the other hand you need to realize that those people break the law: they entered Czech territory without valid documents,” he told Reuters.
“They are not held that long, we try to return them to the nearest country, in line with European law. We return them to Austria within seven days. The problem is that Greece or Hungary do not accept people back, so they stay for 40 days.”
Some are held longer, aid workers said, as the law allows for up to 90 days of detention. There were 533 people detained in the country’s three longer-term centers as of this past week.
The detentions apply to the vast majority of migrants who have either claimed asylum elsewhere or plan to do so only in Germany. Just 1,115 people claimed asylum in the Czech Republic this year, half of them Ukrainians and just 73 of them Syrians.
Some 170,000 irregular migrants entered the EU in September alone, taking the total for the year so far to 710,000. The Czechs have detected just 3,111 since June.
Ramez, who spoke to Reuters in a Prague hostel where he was taken by Czech aid workers on Oct. 15, said he and his friend would take a train to Germany within a day of their release.
The Czech Republic, a country of 10.5 million including about half a million foreigners but just a miniscule Muslim minority, has stood out in the EU along with Slovakia, Hungary and Romania in refusing quotas to share out asylum seekers across the EU.
The tough stance has backing from voters across the Czech political spectrum. President Milos Zeman was criticized for anti-Islamic views in a report released this week by the human rights body Council of Europe.
A survey by the CVVM agency found 50 percent of respondents were against taking in refugees, even from war zones.
The detention center where the two Syrians were held is among the better ones. Aid workers say conditions are worst in a center at Bela-Jezova, 50km (30 miles) north of Prague.
The country’s Public Defender of Rights, Anna Sabatova, gave the site a damning evaluation after visits in August and October.
“The deepest trauma is caused by the fact that (detainees) don’t know why they are there, for how long they will be there and what is their legal status,” Sabatova said. “Conditions are in many aspects worse than in Czech prisons.”
At the time of her August visit there were 700 people, including around 150 children, and 70 men were placed in a gym. Most have since been moved elsewhere to ease overcrowding.
Only bread rolls and cheese were distributed three times a day when Sabatova visited the camp. Many beds had neither sheets nor blankets, and there was a shortage of toiletries and diapers for children, her report said.
Five social workers were available for all the people. Medical assistance was provided by one doctor with two nurses.
A non-government group, Organization for Aid to Refugees (OAR), said among the detained was a Syrian family whose son suffered from asthma but did not receive proper medication. An ambulance was called for him several times, which the family had to pay for.
The facility is encircled by a double fence, the inner perimeter topped with razor wire, in the middle of a forest now covering a former training ground for Soviet troops that invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968 and stayed until 1991.
Reuters asked to visit Bela-Jezova but the authorities did not make a decision on the request.
Minister Chovanec acknowledged part of the criticism, for example a shortage of interpreters for the detainees who receive legal documents in Czech.
“We take the situation very seriously, but we are convinced that we are doing the maximum so that the people live there under standard, legal conditions,” Chovanec told Reuters.
The government is opening more centers and adapting some for the needs of families to improve the situation, he said. Withholding phones and money is required by law, he said.
OAR director Martin Rozumek, whose staff visits Bela-Jezova regularly, said he believed the aim was to mistreat residents deliberately, to discourage other migrants from passing through the country.
“The living conditions, including guards using dogs during nighttime checks on people, bad food, bad hygiene conditions, dividing families, all that we think is against European law and undignified,” he said.
“We are afraid that it won’t get better, that it is part of the state policy to scare as many people as possible among those who might come in the future.”
The length of detentions and treatment of those apprehended has run into opposition even at the government level.
“The only thing they committed is a misdemeanor, like when you park your car wrong. You don’t expect to be locked up for 90 days,” Justice Minister Robert Pelikan said on Czech Television.
The Czech Bar Association called on its members in September to assist migrants in legal issues. Stepan Holub from the Bar leadership said around 20 of his colleagues have volunteered.
“When we were in the camp, we hated the Czech Republic,” said the Syrian Ramez. “Only when we saw people from a charity and the Red Cross at the train station, we found out that there are good people here as well.”
Additional reporting by Jason Hovet; Editing by Jan Lopatka and Peter Graff