After driving through the snow covered countryside for over an hour we finally arrive at the Balkava detention centre for refugees near Pilsen. Once inside the plain looking building, we walk along a series of bleak yellow corridors, accompanied by a police officer. The officer unlocks a gate for us and we are brought to a wing of the building where there are two rooms and a waiting area. Here refugees come for legal advice provided by non-profit organizations. I take off my coat and begin to shiver, and decide to put it on again. Is there any heat? I ask. The NGO workers smile. It's always like this. An old radiator buzzes meekly in the corner and I keep my coat on all day. The first group of refugees are brought in by a police officer. Two Vietnamese men shuffle in wearing similar outfits- checkered pants and orange jumpers.
"I have been here a long time, I have worked, I have served, it is like my second home. I just want to legally work like the Czechs, I am happy in the Czech Republic. I applied for asylum three times but they rejected it. I just want to be a normal person, half my life I have been here."
Nguyen is a Vietnamese migrant worker who has been living in the Czech Republic for twenty two years. Martin Krahulik, a legal advisor working for the Organization for Aid to Refugees has been following his case:
"He doesn't have a passport because the Vietnamese embassy does not want to issue him any identification documents. He says it is because there is still a communist regime in Vietnam. He is in a situation that can't be decided in a positive way for him, because he can't return to Vietnam. He was detained for the second time in the Czech Republic, because he is illegal on the territory. There seems to be no solution. They will detain him again and again because he can't get any documents. This is a really terrible case."
In terms of the bigger picture, just how many people are seeking in asylum in the Czech Republic? I asked Tomas Urubek from the Ministry of Interior's Department for Asylum and Migration Policies
"In 2004, there were approximately 5500 asylum claims."
Of the 5500 claims, how many people were granted asylum last year?
"142 foreigners were granted asylum protect and 42 by subsidiary forms of protections."
More than half of the asylum seekers are from the former Soviet States. Many of them come in search of work. Martin Krahulik speaks about the cycle which can land migrant workers from the former USSR in detention centres:
"Usually they come on tourist visas and they try to find a job. They get in contact with a boss from their community, sometimes they give him their passports, this boss knows everything about them. He finds a job for them, he finds accommodation for them and they are at his mercy."
"Since they are so dependent on this boss, whenever he decides that they are no longer necessary for him, he can just cancel their visas or lose their passports and when they are checked by police, it comes up that they are staying illegally and they are detained in Balkava or at other detention centres."
Why do they turn to these Ukrainian bosses, why don't they just go to the foreign police and arrange their own papers?
"The system is so complicated that it is really difficult to find a legal job, because you need all kinds of papers from labor offices, from other institutions, so it is necessary to have somebody who knows how to navigate in it and help you with all these papers."
Giorko has been in detention for the past two months and will likely be there for maximum of six months. Like many migrant workers from the former USSR, he ended up here because of problems with his work permits. Instead of working as he had planned, he is waiting for his case to be resolved. He spoke to me about his days at the detention centre:
"We have breakfast around 8, then we don't do anything, then we have a walk around the facility from 10 to 11, then we have lunch. From 2- 4 we have a walk again, then at 6 dinner and that's it. We have a few books here, really a few. You can read for a month, but then you have read them all. We have TV, it's hard to watch, it's near the ceiling in the hall and there are no chairs, and we don't do anything."
Giorko also spoke about a brief strike his floor went on to get more blankets during the winter months. They also asked for exercise programs or work. None of these requests were fulfilled. Martin Krahulik speaks of the conditions at the refugee detention centres:
"They are always in a kind of situation, that they don't know what is going to happen the next day. The police do not tell them when they will be released or transported to an asylum camp which is an open facility. All that they know is that the maximum time of stay is six months. There is a lack of free times of free time activities, a lack of books, magazines, of things a person can do. They would like to work or do something that has meaning but it is not possible there."
The constant boredom and anxiety can lead to tense situations. Martin Krahulik again:
"The people are really depressed there. That's how conflicts between detainees and officers erupt. We have cases of people going on hunger strikes, or fights with police or people threatening that they want to kills themselves."
In addition, to illegal migrant workers from the former Soviet states, Chinese refugees also make up a significant group at the detention centre. Martin Krahulik explains the situation of many of these people:
"Many of them apply for asylum, some of them, when they see that their situation here has really no solution and that they would have to stay in many places such as Balkava for many months, they apply to go back to China. The problem is that they sold all their property to come to Europe and now they are heading back without anything."
I spoke to one twenty-six year old Chinese man who has been living in the Czech Republic for the past six years. Like many migrant workers, he ended up in detention after problems with his work permits. The day I visited the detention centre, this man had received a letter from the state ordering him to leave the country and forbidding him to return to the territory for five years. I spoke to him about his situation:
"I put all my money in the Czech Republic. I helped buy our family restaurant, if they send me back to China, I will not have anything. I will have to start from the beginning. I don't want to think about that. For me, that is the worse. I don't want to go back. I have friends here, my family is here."
Given the inefficient work permit system, many people apply for asylum as a last resort. Asylum can only be granted in cases where the refugee is being persecuted. With so many people applying for asylum, the Ministry of Interior is overrun with asylum requests:
"This results in a situation where they do not have time and staff to deal with real refugees. They do not have the time really find out why they were persecuted. This means that most cases, even if there are reasons for granting asylum, are rejected by the ministry."
Not only is the ministry overrun with asylum requests but NGO's claim that asylum acceptance rates in the Czech Republic are lower than in the older EU states. In the case of Chechen refugees the Ministry of Interior confirmed that there is about a 10 to 15% difference between Czech and Austrian acceptance rates. The length of time it takes to complete the asylum procedures is also an important issue. It is not unusual for Chechen refugees to wait a year of two in refugee camps before they are granted a decision about their case. I asked Tomas Urubek, why is the decision making process so lengthy?
"Every asylum claim is assessed strongly individually. Almost all information relevant to decide the case are checked in the country of origin. It is extremely hard to do that in Chechnya. The Northern Caucus is extremely risky territory. It's difficult for anybody to get information from this region to really assess if our asylum seekers are really in need of international protection according to reasons claimed during the asylum procedure."
I find it interesting that we are saying that it is really difficult to get access to information in Chechnya because it is dangerous. At the same time, that is the almost the argument why these people are not being granted asylum.
"Well, as I said, every asylum claim, because it is an administrative procedure, it must be clearly decided if the presented reasons are relevant to the court review. To finalise the case, the file, you really have to decide whether the reasons are relevant or not. It's really the main principles of any administrative procedure."
Of the new EU states, the Czech Republic boasts having one of the highest asylum acceptance rates. Neighbouring Slovakia granted 15 asylums last year. Since joining the EU the Dublin Convention has been introduced. According to the convention a refugee who comes to an EU country and applies for asylum in this country is not entitled to lodge their application in any other EU country.
This means that refugees coming from the former USSR are now being stopped in Eastern Europe where there chances of being granted asylum are lower than in the old countries of the EU. They cannot simply travel to another EU country with more favourable conditions, because according to EU legislation, the refugee is to be returned to the EU country where they first applied. There is an EU wide database that keeps track of these applications.
At the end of day, we packed up the legal papers, the portable photocopier and trecked through the snow to get to the car. I looked back at the building and thought of the people I had met that day:
"It feels worse than prison, it feels like a zoo, we don't have any rights. I don't want to continue living here like this. All day we just stare at walls. We just look at the snow through bars. Nothing more. We gaze into nothingness."