UN accuses Czech Republic of violating human rights of migrants

UN human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein accused the Czech Republic on Thursday of committing systematic human rights violations by detaining refugees for up to 90 days and strip-searching them for money to pay for their own detention.

Refugees detained for up to 90 days, strip-searched and charged $14 a day for the privilege

Guards walk past a razor wire fence securing a former prison in Drahonice, Czech Republic, that has been turned into a detention centre for migrants. Czech authorities have been detaining refuges for up to 90 days, strip-searching them and charging them money for their own detention, according to a critical report by the UN refugee. (Petr David Josek/Associated Press)

UN human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein accused the Czech Republic on Thursday of committing systematic human rights violations by detaining refugees for up to 90 days and strip-searching them for money to pay for their own detention.

Human rights violations "appear to be an integral part of a policy by the Czech government designed to deter migrants and refugees from entering the country or staying there," he said in a statement.

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.

Those who come through the Czech Republic have mostly been detained, some for weeks if authorities do not manage to return them to the country they arrived from. Very few claim asylum in the Czech Republic. Many continue their journey to Germany upon release.

The Czech government says the detentions are legal and they are continuously trying to improve conditions in the centres.

"We are improving conditions for refugees and we do not think that we are breaching any directives or rules that bind us by international treaties," Interior Minister Milan Chovanec told reporters in reaction to the UN statement.

"I expect that we will get a written report (from the UN) from which we will be able to define what (the criticism) is about."

'Islamophobic' statements

The Czechs voted last month in a small minority against quotas to distribute asylum seekers across the European Union, putting them on collision course with EU partners.

Al-Hussein expressed alarm that the country's detention policy was accompanied by increasingly xenophobic public statements, including "Islamophobic" statements by President Milos Zeman and a public petition "Against Immigration" launched by his predecessor Vaclav Klaus.

Czech President Milos Zeman has made Islamophobic inflammatory statements about refugees, saying they might bring terrorism, infectious diseases and Shariah law into the country. (Frank Franklin II/Associated Press)

Zeman rejected the criticism and his spokesman said: "The president has long warned of the threat of Islamic fundamentalism. He stands by his opinion, and he will not change it under pressure from abroad."

The Associated Press reported that Zeman has previously said that asylum-seekers might bring terrorism and infectious diseases and called for the deployment of the armed forces to protect the country's borders against them.

Al-Hussein singled out the Bela-Jezova centre where refugees are detained with their children. The Czech Republic's own ombudsman condemned conditions in the detention facility last week, saying they violate the UN's Convention on the Rights of the Child and the European Convention on Human Rights.

The UN refugee agency UNHCR says the vast majority of those making the northward journey from Turkey through Greece, often hoping to reach Germany, are refugees rather than economic migrants, and have a right to protection and asylum.

Migrants move past a chapel after crossing from Croatia into Slovenia Thursday. After too many days and nights stuck outside in the rain and cold, tempers are fraying among the tens of thousands of migrants trying to get through the Balkans to the heart of Europe. Slovenia has requested help from the EU to deal with the influx. (Darko Bandic/Associated Press)

Most come from Syria, and Zeman has warned that they would impose Shariah law once they had reached their destination, stoning women to death for adultery and chopping thieves' hands off.

"We will lose women's beauty because they will be covered head to toe in burqas, with only a fabric net over the face," the CTK news agency quoted him as saying last week.

Zeman's views reflect those of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has vowed to protect Christian values by fighting to stem immigration from Muslim countries.

Detention should be last resort

The centre-left Czech government has not used similar rhetoric to that of the 71-year-old president but remains unique in detaining refugees for so long — routinely for 40 days and sometimes for 90, Al-Hussein said.

"International law is quite clear that immigration detention must be strictly a measure of last resort," he said. Detaining children "on the sole basis of their migration status, or that of their parents, is a violation, is never in their best interests, and is not justifiable," he said.

Courts had released people who had challenged their detention, but most did not know their rights and were unable to exercise them, partly because their mobile phones were taken away when they were detained, Al-Hussein said.

They were often destitute on their release after being strip-searched for money to pay the daily cost of 250 Czech crowns ($14 Cdn) for their detention, often in poor conditions, he said.

Slovenia still struggling with influx

Meanwhile, Slovenia has formally requested European Union aid in managing the influx of thousands of migrants crossing through on their way toward wealthy countries in Western Europe.

Interior Ministry official Bostjan Sefic said Thursday the request has been sent to the European Commission. He spoke hours ahead of a visit by European Commissioner for Migration Dimitris Avramopoulos.

Officials say more than 5,000 people arrived in Slovenia by noon on Thursday alone and more than 38,000 have come since Saturday, when Hungary closed its border with Croatia.

The tiny European nation of two million says it has been overwhelmed by the migrant influx and has called on the army to help police with border duties.

With files from The Associated Press