Eighty-five miles outside of Prague, there is a small town called Drahonice. There is nothing of note there except for an ex prison, which is currently being used to detain around one hundred refugees. It is a detention the refugees obviously do not wish for, but one, which they must pay for themselves. A daily fee of around 270 Kc (£7) is either taken off them or billed to them on their release.
There is no logic in locking these people away. It is a pointless exercise; none of them face charges and on their release, the Czech authorities simply wash their hands of them and move them on, allowing them to continue their journey to wherever they were originally headed.
The detention centre recently made local headlines after dozens of refugees staged a hunger strike, and a few self-harmed with broken glass. The protest has now ended and calm has been restored, but the outcome for the detainees remains the same: They are still imprisoned; they still do not know why they are being held, or when they will be released.
Two fences, the inner one topped with coils of barbed wire, surround the prison and guards with dogs patrol the perimeter. Three types of authority guard the facility: contracted security guards, regular police and the prison wardens themselves, somewhat extreme for a prison population of so few and who face no charges.
We were held in a cold waiting room for two hours, a wait longer than the car journey itself. The reason, for the delay we were told, was there had been rumours of an escape and so they had to complete a head count. I wondered whether this was true or merely a tactic to induce stress on the visitors, to deter them from future visits.
The search we were subjected to before entering was that of one of a maximum security prison whilst the decor inside resembled a primary school. Hand drawn pictures adorned the walls of the corridor that led to the rooms where we would meet the refugees. Pictures depicting peace and tranquillity, pictures that did not belong in the scenario the refugees now find themselves in. As this was the first time these paintings had apparently been on show, and the fact one of them was signed by a female, in an all-male prison, they were met with suspicion. A PR stunt for the visiting lawyers perhaps?
The meeting room was uninviting and bore all the hallmarks of an abandoned property. A table and chairs were provided but there were no refreshments on offer for either visitors or captives; I don’t think any of us were particularly welcome. Through the window we could see the hospital wing and a concrete football pitch that the refugees are allowed to use, but nobody does.
The first refugees I met were Aarif, an Afghani, and two Pakistani men, Jamil and Nadim. Not their real names, their names have been changed to protect identity. They were arrested on a train at Prague and had been locked up for four months. Their appearance seemed OK physically but the psychological strains of their situation were evident.
Aarif told us he had been an interpreter for the allied forces during the invasion of his country, and like many others, he was abandoned once the decision was made to pull out the troops. Facing the likelihood of retribution from the Taliban, he had little choice but to flee.
I met a fifteen-year old boy. A child locked up in a world that no man deserves to be in. Told to lie about his age to the authorities, and with no documents to prove otherwise, he is treated like an adult and so remains incarcerated. He has been at Drahonice for three months and has just had his sentence increased by another three. He doesn’t know why. No one does. The criteria for release are purely random here.
I asked about their wellbeing and was told that although there are no real physical attacks by the guards, every three or four days, they are woken in the middle of the night and forcefully spread-eagled against the wall. They are kept in these stress positions for up to half an hour whilst searches are carried out. No one is certain what the guards are searching for. It is after all, nigh on impossible for anything to be smuggled into the prison, and the searches are more frequent than the visits.
It is a harsh scenario that the refugees find themselves in and one that makes no sense other than to deter further refugees entering the Czech Republic, and with only two out of approximately six hundred refugees travelling through the country applying for asylum, it appears the tactic is working; however wrong that is.
By Lee Wright
Also: People helping refugees in the Czech republic
Lee is currently working in Belize doing an internship with an NGO.
He is looking for a career change from a financial background and into writing.
You can find Lee on twitter @leeroyjw
and at his online blog here
Amnesty highlights Czech treatment of refugees
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