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East/West: Human Trafficking, Part 2 -- Czech Republic As Transit Country

By Jeremy Bransten and Alexandra Poolos

The Czech Republic likes to promote its location at the heart of Europe, a big reason why it draws tens of millions of tourists annually. But its geography has also helped turn the Czech Republic into a major transit country on the East-West human trafficking route. In this second of a four-part series on human trafficking and migration, RFE/RL correspondents Jeremy Bransten and Alexandra Poolos visit a Czech camp for illegal immigrants.

Zastavka u Brna, Czech Republic; 14 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The refugee camp at Zastavka u Brna sits amid quiet woodland, on the edge of a village a few kilometers from the city of Brno. A converted police academy, the camp consists of a main administrative building and several two-story dormitories. The paths between the buildings are tidy, the grass mown. The buildings themselves are clean.

Zastavka u Brna's original capacity was 250 people, but around 300 refugees are now housed there. Despite official statistics pointing to a slight dip in the flow of migrants caught at the border this year, camp administrator Josef Wagner says asylum-seekers keep pouring in. All nationalities are represented here -- from Pakistan to Kosovo.

When refugees are first detained by Czech border police or come forward on their own to make an asylum request, they are sent to one of three camps where their applications are processed and they undergo a three-week medical quarantine. Afterwards, asylum-seekers are parceled out to one of eight facilities across the country -- and new ones are being opened every few months.

The Czech asylum procedure can often last more than a year, with opportunities for appeal. That means refugees spend months at camps such as Zastavka u Brna, with little to occupy them. Unaccompanied minors are sent to Zastavka as well and for them, the days trickle past -- one much like the other.

Younger children fare better. Czech lessons are offered and as soon as refugee children pick up basic language skills, they are integrated into the local school. The camp's art studio also offers a way to pass the time. Teacher David Kubu says that although it is not his main purpose, art work can sometimes work as therapy:

"In this room, we're doing graphic art. Here we've got a press, which you can't see on the radio, a little graphic corner. Next door, we are doing pottery. We're working with a potters wheel, trying to make some clay objects. We paint too. Sometimes at the beginning, we'll get someone who is silent, quiet. But very rapidly, through the work here, because of this new possibility, they'll quickly open up."

As if to illustrate Kubu's point, nine-year old Artan and 10-year old Rashi romp around the table, eager to show visitors their artwork. Artan is from Kosovo, Rashi from Dagestan. Both have been at the camp for a year. They now speak fluent Czech and attend the local school. For them, Zastavka has become a second home.

Czechoslovakia was the first post-communist European state to draft an asylum law and set up permanent refugee camps. After Czechoslovakia split into two independent states in 1993, the Czechs further enhanced their reputation by hosting thousands of refugees from Bosnia and, later, from Kosovo. But the Czechs now find their modest resources stretched to the limit.

Under-staffed border police struggle to patrol the border against a growing tide of illegal migrants -- many smuggled into the country by well-organized gangs. To add insult to injury, most of the refugees now applying for asylum in the Czech Republic openly admit to using the country as a destination of convenience, hoping to obtain papers that will allow them to seek their fortune further westward.

A majority of the refugees at the Zastavka camp see the Czech Republic as just another stop on their journey to the West. They spend their days making plans to move on. Mohammad, a 22-year-old from Pakistan, is typical.

Mohammad says his family sold land to pay traffickers the $7,000 fee to smuggle him to western Europe. His 25-day journey took him through Kyrgyzstan and Russia. When the traffickers dropped him off, he thought he had reached Italy. It wasn't until police caught him and took him to a processing camp that he realized he had been duped. "Welcome to the Czech Republic," they told him. Mohammad had to consult an atlas to determine where he was. Then he telephoned his parents.

"I talked to them, yeah, I telephoned. And I told them: 'I am in Czech Republic.' They ask me: 'Where is Czech Republic?' I tell them there is Slovakia and Czech Republic. They are two countries. They say: 'Oh, we don't know where is the Czech Republic!'"

Mohammad applied for asylum in the Czech Republic and was sent to Zastavka to await the outcome of his case. But he says that even if he receives asylum, he will try to get to Germany or Italy.

"We don't want to live here. We give money to Mafia to take us to Germany, to Austria, to France, to Italy. The Mafia leave us here. We paid approximately $7,000."

Mohammad says his prospects for earning a substantial amount of money in the Czech Republic are slim. The 12 crowns (today, about $0.35) a day the Czech authorities give him as pocket money while his case is being examined will not go far toward repaying his family.

Camp administrator Josef Wagner says that the country's economic condition means that for now the Czech Republic remains largely a transit country.

"At this point, we're not yet a target destination for immigrants -- [although] there are some people of course who really do want to obtain asylum here. But the rest try their luck further along the line. They treat this as a way station and try to get into Germany or Holland or Austria or other countries."

Czech authorities says traffickers often dump the migrants in the Czech Republic in hopes of extorting more money out of them before taking them to western Europe. Frequently, too, the refugees have already handed over their life's savings. In that case, the traffickers usually abandon them.

Earlier this year, the discovery of five Sri Lankans left on a road near the camp -- their hands and legs infected with gangrene after being tied up by human traffickers -- shocked Czech authorities. They provided a stark reminder of the forces the country now has to deal with.

The Sri Lankans were granted asylum on humanitarian grounds. Most people are not so lucky. Last year, out of more than 5,000 petitioners, only 85 received asylum.

Dana Nemcova is deputy director of the Advice Center for Refugees, a Prague-based non-governmental organization that provides advice and legal help to asylum seekers. The center operates on an annual grant of about $64,000 (2.5 million crowns) provided by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. It employs three lawyers and three social workers plus a handful of Czech language teachers and interpreters who work in the asylum camps.

Nemcova says that in addition to migrants crossing illegally into the Czech Republic, the tightening of national residency and visa laws -- to bring them in line with EU standards -- has further taxed the asylum infrastructure. Many foreigners already living in the Czech Republic, mostly from the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, apply for permanent asylum, even if they don't intend to stay permanently.

"Starting this year, the situation has changed. The new asylum law recognizes humanitarian reasons and is more liberal, and the law on foreign residence, at the same time, has become stricter. So a lot of people who were living here for a time but have nowhere to return to and didn't meet the high financial requirements to obtain residency as a foreigner have been forced to go through the asylum procedure and request asylum."

Meanwhile, in Brno, which lies only a few kilometers from the Austrian and Slovak borders, police are redoubling their efforts to stem the flow of migrants. In some ways, it's a cat-and-mouse game. Agreements with Austria and Germany oblige the Czech Republic to take back refugees caught in those countries, if they have transited through Czech territory. But if the Czechs catch third-country migrants coming from Slovakia, they have the right to return them there.

Brno border police chief Lubomir Sebela says what frustrates his officers most is that refugees often vanish midway through their asylum procedure, while housed in Czech camps. If they are unsuccessful in their bid to reach Germany or Austria, they are returned to the Czech Republic, where the refugee camps take them back and their asylum hearing usually continues, uninterrupted.

Practically, this works as an incentive for migrants to try their luck at crossing into the West, using the Czech Republic as a fallback position. If in the end they are denied asylum, they tend to vanish. The camps are not jails, as administrator Josef Wagner notes, and access in and out is not restricted.

In its attempt to join the EU, the Prague government has much on its plate. For now, dealing with refugees has not been a top priority. But with the Czech Republic's EU neighbors placing the burden of coping with asylum seekers on its doorstep, this is a problem that will not go away.

While tourist brochures continue to tout "Heart of Europe" tours to Prague, this is one route the Czech Republic would rather have migrants bypass. Today, Czechs are reluctant, if decent, hosts and the asylum-seekers their mostly unwanted guests.