Refugee camps

When someone applies for asylum, this means in practice that in 99% of the cases they will have to spend some time in a refugee camp. Its inhabitants are to a certain extent restricted in their rights, albeit only by the collective character of the facilities. Moreover, such camps contain individuals and groups from all sorts of backgrounds, as far as life customs and traditions are concerned.

The dialogue attempts to illustrate the atmosphere of a refugee camp, to bring us closer to how a person perceives and feels in a refugee camp, and what view we, who stand outside it, can have of the matter.

  • What is...?

Refugee camp: This is the popular term for facilities which are established by the Administration of Refugee Facilities of the Ministry of the Interior of the Czech Republic for the purpose of providing shelter and basic services to asylum seekers. On an international scale, it is also a term for the many hundreds of thousands of tents or very primitive camps established in regions ravaged by war and natural disasters (e.g. Africa, Chechnya, etc.).

Reception centre or quarantine: This is the first place an asylum seeker must visit. For 3 months, they may not leave these facilities and must subject themselves to preventative examinations, have their fingerprints taken, and undergo other identification processes. This is also where the 1st interview takes place regarding the reasons which led them to apply for asylum. (Vyšní Lhoty, Ruzyně).

Residential centres: There are at present 10 such centres around the entire CR, the capacity of which ranges from a few dozen to approximately 300 places. At the beginning of 2006, approximately 2/3 of asylum seekers lived in residential centres. An asylum seeker can leave a residential centre on the basis of a permit from the Foreigners’ Police, either permanently (“private residence”) or on the basis of a leave pass, which is valid for up to 30 days.

Integration asylum centre (IAC): These are for accommodating successful applicants for asylum, i.e. people who have been granted asylum. There are four such centres at present, and their regime differs considerably from those of the other facilities referred to above. They are smaller facilities, the services provided are restricted or otherwise, and their inhabitants are de facto tenants.

“Camp syndrome”: This refers to a set of psychosomatic symptoms which can occur in people who have to spend long periods of time in refugee camps. After several months (depending on the individual dispositions of the persons involved and other circumstances), following an initial period of relative contentment, people begin to react unfavourably to the restrictions being placed on their personal freedom, their isolation from the surrounding world and the insecurity accompanying asylum proceedings. They find it difficult to accept the loss of their traditional roles and are always aware of the difficulty of the current situation or the possibility of returning to traumas already experienced. As a result of all these processes, they frequently suffer depression, apathy, headaches, stomach pain or other somatic difficulties, and other times they may manifest aggression against themselves or others.

Camp regulations: This refers to the entirety of the official rules which are issued by the camp founder and which must be complied with. However, the main document which sets forth the rights and duties of asylum seekers is the Asylum Act. This stipulates the conditions under which accommodation is provided, what services the refugees are entitled to inside the camp, covers the opportunities of leaving the camp and returning to it, sets out the conditions for payment of pocket money, etc.

Services: Under the Asylum Act, the inhabitants of refugee facilities have a right to certain social and material services. These are provided either directly by the workers of the camp or by non-governmental organisations which are permitted official access to the camps. An asylum seeker living in a camp has the right to receive basic hygiene and healthcare requirements, basic clothes, payment of pocket money, and food (or a contribution “to cooking”). Social, legal and psychological consultancy is provided either by the employees of the camp or NGOs.

Traditions: (seen as a set of social, family, national and other customs) In their new environment and life situation, refugees are exposed to a certain pressure, a confrontation with what is traditional or customary for others. In the environment of a refugee camp, every person has to adapt their regular daily regime and habits, or experience them under new conditions. The performance of certain activities or religious rituals, for example, may be linked with impediments which are difficult to overcome. Refugee have rooms set aside for specific needs, praying for Muslims for instance, and food is adapted to the requirements of basic groups of believers. During Ramadan, Muslims have a specially modified diet.

Although attention is paid in refugee camps to the religious or other requirements of the inhabitants (c.f. the measures taken during Ramadan, etc.), day-to-day life often brings the most various problems. One of the burning issues for the inhabitants is the food served in refugee camps, where it is not possible to receive a contribution to the preparation of one’s own food and where nothing remains but to go to the joint canteen. A concrete example would be, for instance, repeated complaints regarding a menu which includes bread dumplings twice weekly. A problem which might for most of us not create difficulties, or which might prompt someone to say “they should be pleased that they’ve at least got food for free”, can, under the unnatural conditions of a refugee camp in which refugees spend up to a year of their lives, provoke a larger conflict. The fact that a person is without the food which they were used to or that they cannot get used to new food is only the displacement of a problem in a situation in which a person can, in practice, only exercise influence over the rest of their life with great difficulty.

Although certain measures exist which allow people living in refugee camps to continue to respect and observe their traditions and the requirements deriving from them, this is not the end of the problem. The role of the family changes as a result of the new situation, which can lead to tensions within the family (e.g. the mother cannot prepare food, the father ceases to operate as the breadwinner). Though crises resulting from a change of roles can be beneficial in the long run (e.g. freeing up the wife), in the strained situation which waiting for asylum certainly is, they can be a source of added stress. Free-time activities: These are again overseen by employees of the Administration of Refugee Facilities and NGOs, and their main aim is to allow asylum seekers to have at least some kind of activity. These activities are mainly cultural and sports in character, or involve handicrafts, group sessions, etc. Applicants can also undertake certain unskilled work directly for the Administration of Refugee Facilities (maintenance of the environment of the camp, cleaning, the organisation of certain activities, etc.).

In this respect, it is appropriate to mention the recent media case involving abuse of the work of refugees; specifically, it involved the preparation of food for a cultural event organised by the Ministry the Interior without those who prepared the food being paid (according to information from the Ministry of the Interior, these people were given a trip of their choice instead of remuneration). If we leave aside the statutory framework of the possibility of receiving payment for work carried out for a refugee camp (the law speaks only of the possibility of a 100% increase in pocket money, mainly because asylum seekers are prevented from working legally for one year), this again is a more complex problem. Several NGOs rightly criticised the approach taken by the Ministry, though the criticism also applies to them, since they frequently avail themselves of the work of their clients (albeit for a payment).

At first look, there is no problem: a refugee is requested to prepare, for instance, traditional food by an employee of the Ministry or an NGO, and a form of remuneration is agreed on with them.

However, the problem is that the refugee is on the one hand the client of a service which is being provided by the employee of the Ministry or NGO (e.g. consultancy, material support), and at the same time a supplier of an order to this provider. This results in the roles of individual players in the affair being hazily designated and damaging in the future the mutual relationship, which should be based above all on professional principles for the provision of social services.

A person (refugee – client) who avails themselves of someone’s services (the Ministry of the Interior or an NGO) is basically requested by the provider of these services for a favour – for the delivery of a product. Naturally, they are pleased to oblige (once or twice), after all they don’t want to refuse the party helping them, to turn down the offer of a service for payment, the chance to earn a bit more, which is always to be welcomed. However, it is difficult in the future to refuse such a service, for instance for fear that the assistance provided by the Ministry or NGO will be influenced by such a rejection. At the same time, a different relationship is created vis-ŕ-vis such a client on the part of the provider of the social service (the Ministry of the Interior or NGO); they may become a “favourite” and receive greater attention to the detriment of other clients.

What’s more, such a situation inadvertently teaches the client to perceive working relationships on a somewhat distorted level.

  • Topic

Not all asylum seekers have to live in a refugee camp; this depends on their financial possibilities, on their ability to find work, or simply on luck. Nevertheless, every asylum seeker knows what life is like in a refugee camp, and most of them would swap it for life outside the camp if they had the opportunity. However, many asylum seekers would without question give priority to life in their own country, if the conditions and circumstances would simply allow it.

Legal framework
The Convention Relating to the Legal Status of Refugees (the Convention) was accepted by the General Assembly of the UN in Geneva in 1951 and still remains the basic legal document defining a refugee: “...the term refugee relates to any person who finds themselves outside of their home country and has justified concerns of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality or other membership of certain social levels or the advocacy of certain political operations and is incapable of accepting or refusing protection in their home country in light of the concerns referred to...”. The Convention is based on Article 14 of the General Declaration of Human Rights, which states that: “Everyone has the right to seek refuge in another country from persecution and to enjoy asylum there.” The Convention is a binding document for the Czech Republic. The Parliament of the Czechoslovak Federation Republic ratified the Convention in accordance with Article 10 of the Constitution, by which it placed it above other statutory norms. The obligation to provide asylum is covered in the Charter of Basic Rights and Freedoms in Article 43, which states that “the Czech Republic provides asylum to foreigners persecuted for the application of political rights and freedoms. Asylum may be withheld from someone who acts at variance with basic rights and freedoms.”

If we are speaking of refugees, we may be referring in general to everyone who is obliged for the most varied reasons to leave their home and to flee to another place. If such a person finds themselves outside the territory of their own country and requests asylum, they become an asylum seeker, and if they meet the definition laid down by the Convention and are successful in their application, they become a recognised refugee. In the terminology of refugees, there is one more term which relates to people who are refugees, but remain within the framework of their own country, and this is internally displaced persons. Refugees and asylum seekers are still a relatively young phenomenon in the Czech Republic. For this reason, the legislation which covers the conditions of their residence in the CR is still changing and being clarified. At present, the decisive legal instrument is Act 325/1999 Coll., on asylum, as amended. An amendment from 2002 was aimed, amongst other things, at harmonising Czech asylum law with that of the EU. The Asylum Act is still being amended: even at present a new amendment is being debated in Parliament. The issue of asylum falls within the competence of the Ministry of the Interior of the Czech Republic, which for this purpose established the Department of Asylum and Migration Policy (the OAMP) and the Administration of Refugee Facilities (the SUZ). The OAMP is the body which decides in administrative proceedings on asylum proceedings, while the SUZ creates and manages most refugee centres and provides basic social services.

A person becomes an asylum seeker by submitting an application for asylum at a border crossing or in a reception centre to the Ministry of the Interior of the CR. Everyone is obliged to spend around 3 weeks at the reception centre, during which an applicant undergoes a health examination and also has their first interview regarding the reasons for their application. After this, the applicant will either continue to be accommodated at a residential centre (popularly known as a refugee camp), or, if they have the possibility, can live in private (at a private address). The OAMP should decide on applications for asylum within 90 days within the framework of the asylum procedure, though the deadline may be extended. Clearly unjustified applications for asylum, for instance where it is discovered that all that is wanted is legal residence in the CR and the only reasons given for this are economic, or when the applicant comes from a country regarded as being safe, are decided in abbreviated proceedings (a decision should be reached within 30 days). However, many applicants whose application is not rejected in abbreviated proceedings wait up to several years before a decision is reached. Basically, asylum is granted if persecution of the applicant is ascertained during the proceedings, for the reasons given in the Convention. Asylum may then subsequently be granted to several relations of the recognised refugee, and in exceptional cases (the state of health, age) the OAMP may grant asylum for humanitarian reasons.

The applicant has the opportunity to appeal against the decision reached by the OAMP on the rejection of an application for asylum at the regional court with jurisdiction. The court may not award or withdraw asylum, it may only confirm the decision of the OAMP or send it back for further discussion. It is still possible to submit a cassation (annulment) complaint against the verdict of the courts to the Supreme Court of Administration in Brno. On the basis of this cassation complaint, the residence of the applicant in the CR may be prolonged by their being granted a visa for the purpose of tolerated residence. If a foreigner decides not to continue with the asylum proceedings, the Foreign Police will award them an exit visa and they must either leave the CR or render legal their residence in the country in accordance with Act 326/1999 Coll., on the residence of foreigners. In the event of deciding in favour of leaving, the applicant may apply during the asylum procedure (up to 24 hours of its legal termination) for repatriation, i.e. assisted return to their country of origin.

Asylum seekers may, as has been said, avail themselves of the accommodation offered in the residential centres of the Ministry of the Interior, and in any case have a right there to food, hygienic requirements, medical care and pocket money of CZK 480/month (the original level of the pocket money was from 1995 CZK 12 per day for an adult person, and CZK 6 for a child: only in 2006 was the pocket money increased to CZK 16 per day for an adult person and child). During the first year of the asylum procedure, the applicant may not work until the expiry of this deadline, and then only on the basis of permission from the appropriate Labour Office awarded with respect to work for a specified employer. For an applicant living in private, there is the possibility of requesting a three-month financial contribution at the level of the life minimum. Under an amendment to the Act on benefits of state social support, asylum seekers were included in the circle of people who may apply for benefits, though only after meeting the following conditions: a minimum of 1 year in the CR as an asylum seeker and accommodation outside of a refugee camp. An asylum seeker has the right to health care, which is provided in healthcare facilities under the terms of a contract with the Ministry of the Interior of the CR. The children of asylum seekers must attend school along with Czech children.

In order for asylum applications to be met, sufficient proof must be provided that the statement of each applicant regarding personal persecution is true. If the OAMP decides in favour of an asylum seeker, this means that asylum is granted and the applicant becomes a recognised refugee. The granting of asylum is basically equivalent to permanent residence, i.e. the recognised refugee has the same rights and duties as a citizen of the CR, with the exception of military service and the right to vote. After 5 years of asylum, it is possible to apply for Czech citizenship. A person with the status of refugee may be accommodated in the integration centre of the Ministry of the Interior of the CR until such time as they find their own accommodation, or until they are allocated an integration apartment. This provides for courses in Czech free of charge and certain other possibilities related to the integration programme.

In a situation where military conflict, for instance, creates a large number of refugees, and there is a threat that the situation in the country of origin will be unstable for a certain period of time, the Czech government may announce temporary protection under a special Act. Temporary protection relates only to a designated group of refugees, is announced for a specific period of time, and offers the people to whom it is provided a wider range of possibilities than the Asylum Act. Nevertheless, it is assumed that the refugees will return home as soon as order is restored. In the Czech Republic, this institution was used in connection with the wave of refugees from Bosnia, Herzegovina, Kosovo and Chechnya.

Official statistics put out by the OAMP of the Ministry of the Interior of the CR (available at show that 1,799 people enjoyed legal asylum as of 31.12.2005. In 2005, asylum was awarded to 251 people.

Most recognised refugees come from Romania and comprise a fifth of the people who obtain asylum in the Czech Republic. Other groups of successful applicants are persons coming from Afghanistan, the former Soviet Union, Russia (this mainly involves refugees from Chechnya), Vietnam, Armenia and Belarus. Successful applications of Romanians go back to the beginning of the nineties, after which the trend fell sharply. At present, the most successful asylum seekers are from Russia, Afghanistan, Belarus, Armenia and Kazakhstan.

From 1990 to 2005, a total of some 81,000 people submitted applications for asylum, of which some 2,700 people were granted asylum. The majority of asylum seekers come from Europe, around 35% from Asia, and some 2% from Africa. The average success rate for asylum seekers is 3%. Membership in the EU has seen conditions for entry into the country tightened up, and with them the possibility of applying for asylum. This has resulted in a drop in the number of asylum seekers (around 5,000 in 2005) and a rise in their success rate. However, despite this the number of people granted asylum is still very low in comparison with other countries of the European Union.

For the sake of comparison, around 400,000 foreigners apply for asylum every year in the territory of the EU. The most popular destinations, despite a tightening up of their policies on asylum, are Great Britain, Germany and Holland. Again for the sake of comparison, in France 15% of applicants obtained asylum, and in Germany the figure was as high as 21% (though there was a considerable drop in 2002). The success rate in Great Britain 12%.

Psychological, social and cultural aspects of being a refugee
A refugee is a normal person who finds themselves in an abnormal situation, and it must be borne in mind that they do not suddenly cease having basic human requirements, even in a new or alien environment. Amongst these requirements (if we leave aside the need to eat, sleep and feel safe), specialist literature ranks the need for a family life, self-sufficiency, functioning communication, the preservation of human dignity, employment and meaningful activities, and the need to belong somewhere. It should be said that under Czech conditions and in light of global trends which are aimed at tightening up immigration policies, these requirements are frequently not met. A refugee leaves their home, sometimes their family, burns all of their bridges, sells their house or apartment, invests all their resources into a trip for a safer and better life. In the country where they apply for asylum and where they hoped that they would begin this new life, they are frequently brought face to face with harsh reality. Not only are their possibilities considerably restricted for the length of time the asylum procedure lasts, but they also discover that obtaining asylum is practically impossible, and the same applies to finding some other method of legalising their residence. The period of time spent waiting for a decision to be reached on their application for asylum may then be perceived as several lost years of their life. The past does not exist and the future is very uncertain. If we add to that the psychological trauma caused by war, escape, the experience of being an illegal immigrant or a victim of organised crime, then it is clear that refugees and asylum seeker are at high risk for psychological and psychosomatic problems.

Research shows that refugees are most at threat from the following sources of stress:
a) the loss of power and financial independence
b) a new home
c) tension within the family
d) the process of acculturation

Most frequent problems
One of the basic problems within the Czech context of asylum is the length of the asylum proceedings. If the application is not decided within the abbreviated proceedings (c.f. above), then the wait can drag on for several years. Moreover, the percentage of asylums granted is very low.

Another problem is the location of refugee camps, which is today being criticized by the founders of the camps themselves. Several are located in places which are difficult to get to, and links with the outside world are restricted. For a person who is obliged to live several years in some kind of provisional arrangement, insecure as to what the future will bring, this is a very difficult situation. Refugee camps also see a blurring of traditional family roles (the man cannot work and support the family, the women cannot prepare the traditional food) and these facts, combined with other factors, cause psychosomatic problems in many people.

The most frequent complaint heard by asylum seekers is the very restricted possibility of working. The fact is that, in practice, everything is a lot more difficult than according to the law, and finding a job and becoming legally included in the employment process is virtually impossible for many people. Acquiring work permits for employees and employers is not automatic and involves a financial burden and a relatively complicated bureaucratic procedure. Frequently, the employers themselves force their employees to remain working on the black market so that they are not obliged to pay insurance. An asylum seeker who has spent one year in an asylum centre, whether they want to or not, becomes dependent on the assistance provided and is able to stand on their own two feet only with great difficulty. The question of finding work and any possibility of a meaningful use of excess free time is one of the basic questions which the asylum seeker asks the employees of government and non-government organisations. An NGO will attempt to react to this situation, for instance, by creating projects involving leisure activities. The free time of asylum seekers could be used to acquire further education in order that successful applicants are better integrated onto the Czech jobs market, except that under the conditions of the CR, there does not exist an effective system of re-education and re-qualification for asylum seekers. Asylum seekers living outside a refugee camp have only minimal possibilities of receiving support from the state. The financial contribution already referred to is provided several months late, and so completely loses effect as financial support until the beginning of life outside the refugee camp. Work, which is influenced by the problems described above, is the sole source of income for the family of asylum seekers. Those who decide for an independent life and are not taxpayers of CZK 10,500 monthly, which is the sum which the Czech Republic spends on the residence of one asylum seeker in a refugee camp, paradoxically have no effective support. Asylum seekers encounter problems with healthcare and education.

Recognised refugees have substantially better conditions than applicants. They can live in integration centres, request the allocation of an integration apartment, and can attend courses in Czech free of charge. Despite this they do not have it easy. Despite their name, integration centres are also in outlying regions and integration thus becomes a meaningless term. And given the ubiquitous presence of xenophobia, recognised refugees frequently encounter difficulties finding employment.

  • Stories and examples

Story 1
Mrs K. and her two children have been living as asylum seekers in refugee camps in the Czech Republic for almost 6 years. They come from an African country which they left 10 years ago, terrified of the atrocities which were being committed during the civil war being waged at the time. They fled as an entire family, i.e. with the husband and another two children, though they had to leave one son with relatives. After much travelling, they arrived in Moscow, where they lived for several years and had a fifth child. Then they decided that they would try and get to the West. Given their financial situation, however, only Mrs K. could leave with her two youngest children. In 1999, she requested asylum in the CR, and since that time she has not seen her husband or her two older boys. For several years, she has hoped in vain that she would receive asylum, and then after three years was rejected. At present, she has submitted an appeal against this negative finding.

Her husband finally managed to find some kind of residence in the USA, where he travelled with his sons. Mrs K. has now been waiting one and a half years for the formalities to be sorted out which would allow her to join him. She is worried that they will no longer know how to live together.

Mrs K. has already experienced life in several refugee camps in the CR. She is tired of life in these camps and, despite this, is afraid of leaving them since, as she says, she cannot imagine how she would live outside them. She has become used to certain services and support which are provided by social workers, and she is used to having other people around her in a similar situation. Despite this, she suffers constant headaches and other health problems. These are brought on by stress caused by her separation from her husband and other children, from the endless waiting and insecurity, and from the unnatural environment of a refugee camp.

Story 2
Family K. from Afghanistan lived in a refugee camp for 4 years before receiving political asylum. The parents came to the CR with the youngest of their children, a seven-year old boy. Their three other sons remained in Afghanistan in an unknown location, hiding from the Taliban regime. The family are very worried about them, and every day they weep for them. Mr and Mrs K. were already middle-aged, and Mr K. had serious health problems. Life outside the refugee camp would be nonsensical for them. They weren’t able to learn Czech, though they attended regular courses, and they speak Russian very poorly. The only link with the outside world was through their youngest son, who functioned as translator and helped his parents resolve all the complex matters associated with life in a camp. It was very difficult for him, as he had to listen to everything said to him and be available for his parents whenever they needed him. Moreover, he constantly had to look on as his parents wept over their three oldest sons.

  • Sources


Boroda, V. (1999). Bez hrdinů. Praha: Maťa.

Buryánek et al. (2004). Interkulturní vzdělávání: příručka nejen pro středoškolské pedagogy: projekt Varianty. Praha: Lidové noviny.

Diamant, J. (1995). Psychologické problémy emigrace. Praha.

Hendriks, M.(1994). Sociální práce a uprchlíci. Utrecht: Hogeschool de Horst.

Preiss, M. & Vizinová, D. (1999). Psychické trauma a jeho terapie. Praha: Portál.

Šišková, T.(1998). Výchova k toleranci a proti rasismu. Praha: Portál.


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