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The Czech Republic has come under heavy criticism from the UN for its treatment of refugees and migrants, amid reports that authorities in the country are routinely strip-searching them in an effort to forcefully retrieve cash to pay for their involuntary detentions.
In a statement released Thursday, the office of the UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said that Czech officials are regularly subjecting migrants and refugees to detention for 40 days, and in some cases as many as three months. Some migrants and refugees have succeeded in challenging their custody, but few have sufficient access to legal assistance in the facilities where they are being housed.
"Many of these people are refugees who have suffered horrendously in their countries of origin as well as during their journey to the Czech Republic," UN human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said in a strongly worded statement detailing the alleged abuse.
"International law is quite clear that immigration detention must be strictly a measure of last resort."
The UN and human rights groups have cited conditions at a detention center in Bila-Jezova, which Czech Minister of Justice Robert Pelikan called "worse than in a prison." Pelikan said that the migrants should not be housed there; as of October 13, some 100 children were being housed at the facility. Zeid said detaining children solely on the basis of their migratory status or that of their parents was a violation of what the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has determined to be appropriate treatment.
Even more alarming, said UN officials, was what it called "credible reports" that migrants were being regularly strip-searched in order to seize the roughly $10 per day that they are charged to be held against their will. The UN said the payment is being "demanded by the authorities from all migrants, without clear legal grounds, leaving many of them destitute upon their release."
"The fact that people are being forced to pay for their own detention is particularly reprehensible," said Zeid.
Refugee organizations echoed Zeid, blasting the Czechs for their behavior.
"The reports of refugees being systematically abused in detention centers in the Czech Republic are appalling," Juliette Delay, spokesperson for the International Rescue Committee, told VICE News. "This kind of behavior is unacceptable. "
"These are men, women, and children fleeing wars and persecution in their home countries and the Czech Republic and all European countries should uphold its obligations under international humanitarian law and treat them with the dignity they deserve," said Delay.
On Thursday, the office of Czech President Milos Zeman insisted the country was following the rule of law and criticized the UN for alleging a xenophobic undercurrent in the Czech Republic, and for citing comments made by Zeman that were considered islamophobic.
"The Czech Republic observes human rights and law," said Presidential spokesman Jiri Ovcacek. "Lashing out at a sovereign country in this way is quite out of place."
In August, Zeman disparaged migrants and refugees after roughly 100 mostly Pakistanis and Afghans tried to escape a detention facility.
"No one invited you here," Zeman told the Czech newspaper Blesk, referring to those who had tried to flee. "But now you are here, you must respect our rules, as we respect the rules when we go to your country."
"If you don't like it, then leave," said Zeman.
"The president has long warned of the threat of Islamic fundamentalism," said Ovcacek on Thursday. "He stands by his opinion and he will not change it under pressure from abroad."
The Czech Republic has largely dodged having to deal with the huge numbers of refugees and migrants that have made their way through Europe this year, often aiming to reach Germany and countries in Scandinavia. Some refugee assistance groups, including the International Rescue Committee, do not have staff in the country, which could further isolate refugees and migrants that are being detained there.
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