Where do refugees come from

The dialogue tries to offer an outline of what are the often formidable problems which refugees face when leaving their own country. Refugees who have to leave their own country, for reason of military conflict or other types of pressure, face very complicated situations. Very often it is not at all easy to leave their country, and sometimes it is completely impossible to do so legally. Illegal attempts can be very dangerous, sometimes even life-threatening.

Jami is the only one member in our group with firsthand experience of this, and as can be seen, he is not quick to boast about it. The other kids ask him about it only during an excursion in a relaxed atmosphere, and it is clear that such an experience strikes them as something out of this world.

In fact, people really are reluctant to speak of their departure or border crossing, especially when it involves an unpleasant experience and one which is, moreover, illegal. They are aware that the process they went through is far from standard and they do not want to have to recall the stress they experienced. In the case of refugees from distant countries, like Jami, an Iraqi, the journey may often have involved various forms of transport and was not simply about arriving directly at their destination.

  • What is...?

Il/legal migration to the host country: A refugee can get to the Czech Republic by either legal or illegal means. It depends on whether upon entering the country the person satisfies all the requirements imposed on them as foreigners by local laws. It is not hard to imagine that the states from which people emigrate in order to apply for asylum status are not very accommodating in this respect, and that what they need to satisfy these requirements, such as a valid passport (a condition for legally exiting the state), a visa granting the person permission to enter Czech territory, some form of insurance, and so on, may be impossible for them to obtain. In addition they may often be persecuted by state authorities in their home country whose interest may be to prevent the emigration of inconvenient citizens, and those trying to leave may have no knowledge of the conditions attached to traveling abroad, or may be unable to obtain any such information.

Human trafficking: Wherever it is impossible to attain one’s objective by legal means, illegal practices are always a recourse. The term “‘human trafficking” is closely associated with refugees.

The UN Convention Against Transnational Organised Crime defines trafficking in persons as follows: “The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring, or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force and other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability, or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude, or the removal of organs.” The Czech Republic ratified the Convention in 2002, and human trafficking is defined in the Czech Criminal Code.

Human trafficking, which can also be called modern slavery, is a global phenomenon. It is underpinned above all by unequal international economic relations, poverty, tolerance of breaches of human rights, political instability in the country of origin, insufficient information provided to the general public and children, insufficient knowledge of the law, a shift in the system of values in society, excessive orientation on the principles of market conduct and the myth of an easy, comfortable life in richer countries, a high demand for cheap, purchasable sex and for a cheap workforce in target countries, and frequently various forms of gender or racial discrimination. It is important to realise that people residing illegally in a host country make ideal targets for extortion and abuse by mafia organisations. These people are then left to live in fear of being exposed and of the consequences that such exposure would likely bring to them, rather than to their extorters or abusers.

It is not easy to express precisely the extent of this problem in statistics, and estimates of the number of victims vary considerably. Various international studies state that between 700,000 and 2 million people are trafficked around the world every year, with 300,000 to 500,000 people trafficked every year within Europe alone. It is estimated that the global annual income from human trafficking is something in the region of EUR 8.5 to 12 billion. According to the most up-to-date study by the International Labour Organisation, there are 12.3 million victims of forced labour around the entire world, of which 2.4 million are also victims of human trafficking for this purpose. The annual profits of the perpetrators are estimated as equal to USD 31.6 billion. Profits generated by human trafficking are comparable with revenue from the sale of drugs or weapons, although the risk of being caught and punished is disproportionately lower (source: Ministry of the Interior of the CR).

Smuggling: In the case of refugees who have only a very restricted possibility of travelling between countries, one form of human trafficking is immediately at hand – smuggling. Gangs will organise for a profit the passage of virtually anyone from one country to another,, anywhere. The prices are usually high, and moreover the smugglers usually seize the travel documents of their “clients” or falsify them, and do not provide them with sufficient or accurate information, while the conditions under which the journey takes place are often degrading and inhumane. The journey may be long and cover several thousand kilometres, and those who take part in such transports often psychologically scarred for life. In the worst cases, their decision to undertake such a journey may even cost them their life. Analogous to smuggling across dry land are the dangerous sea passages undertaken by African refugees on vessels in poor condition as they try to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe.

European Union – the Schengen Area: The problem of illegal border crossings was significantly altered by the Czech Republic’s becoming a member of the EU in 2004 and especially by its subsequent entry into the so-called Schengen Area, which was expanded to include the Czech Republic in December 2007. In the Schengen Agreement, which was signed in Schengen on 14 June 1985, Belgium, France, Luxembourg, Germany and the Netherlands undertook to gradually remove border controls on common borders and to introduce free movement for all persons who were citizens of signatory member states, other member states, or third countries. The Schengen Agreement was introduced into practice through the elimination of border controls in the signatory states on 19 June 1990. The Agreement stipulates the concrete form and safeguards for implementation of the freedom of movement. The Schengen Area has gradually expanded to include all EU member states except the UK, Ireland, Cyprus, Bulgaria, and Romania. The area has also expanded to include three non-EU states, namely Iceland, Norway and Switzerland. What is important here for the issue of refugees is that defence against illegal entry into the Schengen Area lies with the states whose borders are also the outer limits of the Schengen Area. Some of these states have had to deal with an increased number of applicants seeking international protection (formerly asylum seekers) among refugees who manage to get across this border. A good example is Malta, which, because of its geographical location, is a sought-out destination for refugee boats coming from northern Africa. Given the small size of this island state, it is at the very least difficult for it to take in such a larger number of refugees.

“Third country”: The designation of a non-member state of the EU.

“Third safe country”: This designates a country which is neither the home state of a refugee nor the country in which a refugee seeks international protection (formerly asylum) or supplementary protection; in relation to refugees it refers to a country through which an applicant for international protection travelled, and in which the individual could have applied for international protection before reaching the target country. The designation “safe” means that basic human rights are observed in the country, and that the country has a democratic system and is able to conduct asylum procedures. At present, there is no official list of safe countries.

Quarantine: Usually a period of three weeks which the law stipulates that a person applying for international protection in the Czech Republic must spend in isolation. Medical tests are carried out for infectious diseases, and asylum seekers are subjected to identification operations (e.g. their fingerprints are taken). During this time, they may not leave the reception centre of the Ministry of the Interior of the Czech Republic.

Dublin Convention: This convention determining the state responsible for examining applications for asylum lodged in one of the Member States of the European Community, concluded between member countries of the European Community in 1990, came into force in 1997. It stipulates the criteria under which it is possible to identify the country which is responsible for asylum proceedings for every case of asylum, and ensures that applicants for asylum are not referred successively from one Member State to another without any of the Member States acknowledging itself to be competent to examine the application for asylum.

Types of facilities for foreigners: Foreigners arriving in the Czech Republic for the purpose of applying for asylum pass through the following types of facilities: an arrival centre, a residential centre, and an integration asylum centre. These centres are the responsibility of the Ministry of the Interior of the Czech Republic and are run by the Refugee Facilities Administration. In addition to the centres named above, there are also holding facilities where mostly foreigners who have received notice of their deportation out of the country are held.

  • Topic

As has been stated, refugees arrive in the CR both legally and illegally. After the Czech Republic became a part of the EU and especially the Schengen Area, it became less accessible. The conditions under which a person can apply for international protection in a given country are stipulated in the Dublin Convention. On the other hand, as a member state of the EU, the CR is a more attractive destination. However, the obstacles are so considerable that the number of applicants for international protection has been decreasing each year.

The first basic condition which a potential applicant for international protection must usually meet in order to legally enter the CR is the acquisition of a visa (if there exists a visa requirement between the CR and the country of origin, which in most cases there does). Whether or not a person is able to acquire a visa depends on several factors.

The decisive factor is the real reason a person is leaving their home country and how. If this is a thought-out and planned move, and if the person’s life is not at immediate risk or their freedom is not threatened, then they have the opportunity to prepare themselves sufficiently, for instance, to acquire a visa. However, if they are fleeing an immediate danger or long-term and permanent persecution and pressure, then naturally there are priorities other than obtaining a visa.

Other important factors are the dimensions and infrastructure of the home country, the availability of Czech diplomatic representation, the financial means of the refugee and their access to information regarding legal and other means of getting to the target country.

The situation differs considerably depending on what country the refugee comes from. In recent years, for instance, people from the Republics of the former Soviet Union have frequently travelled to the CR on a tourist visa and only applied for asylum (now international protection) once they arrived in the country or after the visa expired. Those who were unable to obtain a visa prior to entering the country can apply for one upon arriving in the CR (at the airport or border crossing; the question remains how successful they are in this endeavour). In the history of illegal immigration to the Czech Republic there are tragic stories of refugees from China, Vietnam, and some post-Soviet Republics. People have made these journeys in the freight compartments of trucks, without air, water, or food, and people have died along the way. Since the Czech Republic joined the EU such cases have been rare. However, foreigners legally transported to the country by modern slavery mafias have ended up in similarly extreme circumstances.

  • Stories and examples

Story 1
A family that fled the war in Chechnya obtained asylum in the Czech Republic. Not all of the family, however, was able to escape. One son was captured by Russian soldiers, and several other relatives were also killed. Given the tragic circumstances of their departure from their home country, the family obtained asylum relatively quickly. However, the father of the family had trouble holding up under the trauma of his own experiences of being captured and tortured and after a time he developed a dependency on alcohol. When his alcoholism evolved into domestic abuse of his wife, she decided to take the children and leave her husband and seek refuge in an asylum house. Her children gradually became used to the new environment, they began to attend school, and the woman found a job at a hospital. Because she had worked as a nurse in Chechnya, the hospital recognised her professional qualifications. Her children gradually became accustomed to a sense of security, which they had long lacked. The children made friends at school; the youngest boy started to play hockey and became a very good player. The family’s situation became stable over time, and they found a new flat to which they were able to move and start a new life.

Story 2
A twenty-three-year-old woman from Afghanistan is applying for international protection. She has never had an opportunity to go to school because in the region she comes from girls were not allowed to attend school. Her uncle taught her at home. She learned everything she needed for life, including English. She has now been in the Czech Republic for a year and a half. She tries to work so that she can support her two younger siblings, who are still minors and are attending primary school. Their parents are not here. The young woman wants to study and make up for what she has missed out on. She has decided to complete her education so that in the future she can apply to a university. Nevertheless she must still devote considerable energy to learning Czech. She enjoys school and she is confident that she can succeed.

Story 3
Several years ago, a group of exhausted refugees from Sri Lanka was found in the winter in the Šumava mountain range. Some of them were suffering acute frostbite and had to have their fingers or toes amputated. They had undoubtedly found themselves in this situation with the “assistance” of smugglers. After a short while, the men received humanitarian asylum in the CR.

Story 4
Mr X. came from Iraq to the CR by land, illegally, in a lorry via Ukraine. For several weeks he ate nothing but potatoes and water. He has been waiting for asylum in the CR for almost four years.

Story 5
Family XY from Armenia was expelled to the CR from the Federal Republic of Germany, where for five years they had sought asylum. Because of the husband’s activities as a journalist, they were convinced that they would receive asylum; both parents worked in Germany, their children went to school there, and the whole family had taught themselves German. However, the German courts failed to grant them asylum and they therefore had to leave. In the CR, they attempted to begin anew and to find work, but unfortunately they were unsuccessful for a year. After two-and-a-half years of waiting in vain, they decided to leave the CR illegally, and their subsequent fate is unknown.

Story 6
A young Chinese girl was found living in the CR illegally, and was placed in holding facilities for foreigners. The men who brought her to the CR said they had found her in Germany. Immediately after being held she applied for asylum. She could not have known what this would entail, but it was what she had apparently been advised to do. She said that she had been an orphan since childhood, and had lived alone in a village where she had nobody. A man from the city offered to get her to Europe. He organised everything. She never said for what price. A few weeks after being placed in a refugee camp, she disappeared. Nobody knows where.

Story 7
Some Chechen families who did not receive asylum in Poland came to the CR to seek protection. They arrived on foot via the Polish-Czech border. After several months of waiting for a decision on asylum, many of them decided to cross the ‘green border’ into Austria. Some of them received asylum in Austria, and some were returned to the Czech Republic.

Last updated 30 December 2011

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