Can Europe Make It?

Impressions from a Czech refugee detention centre

"Leave everything valuable in your car or in a locker. They will try to steal it all," says the woman in charge of the well-being of refugees in the detention centre.

Jakub Hein
8 November 2015

Entrance to the detention camp for foreigners in Bělá-Jezová, Czech Republic. Photo used with permission of author."Leave everything valuable in your car or in a locker. They will try to steal it all," says a middle-aged woman who introduces herself as the one responsible for the wellbeing of the refugees stranded in a detention facility approximately 70 kilometres north of Prague.

Even though the introduction to the camp was rather scary, we continue inside the main building. Our group of "charity workers" - as we introduced ourselves - consists of four completely different characters. Apart from me, there is our group leader, evangelic priest Alexander. The second man in our group is Marek, a pro-footballer, with his wife Petra. The last member of our group is a woman called Cory, a Vietnamese born missionary currently based in Czech Republic.

Accompanied by the lady in charge of the camp, we dive into a complex of old shabby buildings and barbed wire and exchange nervous looks. Except for Alexander, who is here for the second time, none of us knows what to expect. At the first checkpoint, as we enter the main building, we see a flyer. It says that all employees are cordially invited to the "clink party". From now on, we have no doubts about how locals call it here.

We take a staircase to the first floor. There, a policeman checks all our belongings and one by one, allows us to pass through a massive cold iron gate. While I ponder the thoughts about being trapped here for months, my introspective interlude is disturbed by a meeting with a security guard.

Right there, in the middle of the hallway, I also meet my first refugee. It’s a brief encounter. A frowning guard storms past us, escorting a small person carrying a plastic bag. The guard shouts, "The client is here to see the lawyer!" and disappears in a door on the other side of the hall with his escortee. I tell myself to make a mental note – at least they call them clients. Much better word choice than the welcoming leaflet.

So I have finally seen the thing I was most worried about – the guards from private company Securitas. I had my doubts about how power is distributed in the camp – and about the possibility of abuse of the power one is given over the lives of the others.

The reality was different and I was happily surprised. When we emerged from the other side of the main building and entered the courtyard, I saw many unwelcoming faces of the guards. Yet, some of them played with the children, trying to make their stay a bit happier. Children, there were so many of them. They smiled at us, trapped behind barbed fence that separates the outer yard from the inner ground surrounding the building where refugees actually sleep.

Our guard changes. The first woman who accompanied us so far leaves and we are greeted by another woman. She is the second person in charge of the place. From the first moment, there is a distinctive difference between the two. Our new camp guide keeps smiling all the time. During the few minutes of conversation, it becomes clear that she comes from a specific background.

"I’ve been through the same," she says. Suddenly, I realize that I can hear a specific accent in her voice that suggests her roots probably trace to Eastern Europe. I wonder how long it is since she has been on the other side of the security gate we are now passing through.

She takes us in the common room inside one of the houses and leaves us to distribute coffee and chocolate we have brought for the refugees. Cautiously, they come to greet us. So many different faces come to say hello. Some of them stop with the greeting, as they do not speak English. In the corner of the room, there is a young man reading a book in a chair. I approach him to introduce myself.

"Oh, I haven’t seen you in the first place. Sorry, I guess I was burrowed in the book. My name is Safi, how are you?" I am surprised by the fluency of his speech when he closes the book and starts talking to me. I wasn’t expecting to hear a perfect English here.

Turns out that Safi is an economic immigrant. He left Egypt to study in Sweden because his family in Syria couldn’t support his studies anymore. He had a job at a customer support line. Through the nights he has been studying, through the days working. But he just couldn’t make it both happen. When Germany opened its doors for refugees, he heeded the call. He plans to finish his studies and get an engineer degree.

I could imagine meeting him as an Erasmus student, yet he sits here with the invisible stamp "economic immigrant" looming above his head. I can imagine the wave of anger his motives would stir among those fearing the immigration. Yet I am convinced Safi is the one who will make it to the middle management of some international corporation in few years. His skills and capabilities make him more qualified than any of the employees working here.

After while, people in the room start moving out. The lunchtime is approaching. I head outside the building as well, just to be met by many refugees on my way to the entry gate.

The all come carrying various papers. "Here sir, have a look. What does it say?" All of them come asking the same thing. There is a young boy translating their worrying words in English. According to their papers, some of them face deportation; others will be just released from the camp in few days. In the middle of nowhere, with no idea where they are or where should they go, they have few days to leave the country or they will be considered criminals.

Another group of people approach me, shouting, "We want to stay! Can we stay? Asylum, asylum!" After few minutes filled with confused translations between them and me, it becomes clear they have decided to try and seek a refugee in the Czech Republic. When I address our guide in charge of this local Babylon, I learn the sad truth.

My new friends don’t have much chance in gaining an asylum here. They have waited through the mandatory seven-days period they have to legally apply for asylum. They took too much time to consider their situation and now it is simply too late for them. They have grown out of the bounds of what the Czech law can do for them. I feel sorry for them and turn to others, waiting for me to translate their papers to them.

Soon I learn that the law/bureaucratic crisis in the camp is much deeper than I thought. In plain words, the refugees do not have any information about what they should do with their "papers" or who could help them solve their legal problems. When I tell them there is a sheet they should sign to if they want to see a lawyer, they have no idea what I am talking about.

Yet, this is the information given to me from the personnel working here. It seems that the employees were never able to bridge the language gap. What appears to be a perfectly understandable process of seeking a legal advice in the camp – at least for the crew working here – is an unsolvable maze for those stranded behind the bars.

However, the problem does not stop there. If some of them manage to find the sign-up sheet, they are still far from seeing the lawyer. When attorneys come to the camp, the guards just shout out the names of those that signed to the sheet. If they do not hear their name being called, they miss their opportunity to seek counsel and have to start the whole process over.

Even if they make it to the waiting room, there is a segregation in place. Started by the fair motive of trying to help refugees fleeing the war zone, Germany had begun a process of preliminary selection that makes it hard for anybody from other countries than Syria to succeed in the fight with bureaucratic process.

As one refugee from Afghanistan tells me, the lawyers use a simple method to decide who gets counselling first. "Syria go, others no," are the words that refugees remember from the wait line in front of the impromptu law office in the camp. According to those stuck in the queue, Syrians are usually allowed to see the lawyer first. Others just have to wait "a little longer".

Before I can start asking more questions about the process, the guards insist that we have to leave the complex. The time for our visit is over. They rush us to the entrance. When I turn around for the last time, I can see the now familiar faces of dozens of refugees pressed against the fence. They wave to us as we leave the yard and pass the last fence.

I leave the place very conflicted. The barriers separate not only the "legal citizens" working here from the illegal ones. They also separate people apart from each other. Those are the walls that are invisible to the naked eye. They are not looped by a barbed wire, yet they do much more damage when person runs into them.

While some of the personnel at Bělá regard it as a clink, others simply consider it to be a place where their clients stay and try to deal with their difficult situation. Yet, the invisible language barrier does not allow those with more humane approach to help refugees trapped in a maze of papers and paragraphs.

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