Kyrgyzstan: Migrants Swindled

Kyrgyz hopes of a new life are dashed in Czech detention camps.

Kyrgyzstan: Migrants Swindled

Kyrgyz hopes of a new life are dashed in Czech detention camps.

Tuesday, 22 February, 2005

Late last year, Elena sold her apartment in Bishkek and boarded a flight to Prague with her young child. Apartments don't come easy in the Kyrgyz capital, but Elena didn't believe she would be going back.

She had high hopes for the life awaiting her in the prosperous Czech Republic, which is expected to enter the EU in 2004. Back in Bishkek, a lady named Tatyana had promised Elena she would automatically be granted refugee status after six months in the country, and managed to get her to pay 800 US dollars for a one-month Czech tourist visa.

Upon arrival in Prague, however, Elena's dream began to unravel. She was met at the airport by a contact of Tatyana's who she assumed would find her somewhere to stay in the capital. Instead, he pocketed a further payment of 140 dollars and took her to a detention camp for illegal immigrants. The authorities there told Elena she would not be allowed to work until her application for political asylum had been processed.

Until then, she was to be confined to the camp, which would give her three meals a day and roughly three dollars a week with which to buy essentials such as detergent and toothpaste.

Her child has a medical condition, which she was hoping to have treated by Czech doctors - but the chances of this happening inside the camp are slim. Elena bitterly recalls how she was told that bringing her child would speed up her asylum application on humanitarian grounds. Speaking to IWPR from the camp, she said, "I was cruelly deceived. If I knew what conditions we would be subjected to, I would certainly never have brought my child."

Migrants from Kyrgyzstan are languishing in Czech refugee camps, with little hope that the life they were promised by the middlemen who arranged their journey will materialise. And although they are lobbying the Czech authorities for the right to live and work there, many are equally keen to warn those back home against following them abroad.

The number of Kyrgyz entering the Czech Republic has grown in recent years, largely as the result of a vigorous word-of-mouth campaign by Bishkek-based fixers, promising the gullible easy asylum in the eastern European nation.

However, the Czechs, who have one of the strictest asylum policies in Europe, do not believe the Kyrgyz are fleeing persecution and have dispatched all the new arrivals to isolated refugee camps.

According to the Czech interior ministry, 171 Kyrgyz citizens have applied for asylum in the last seven years. However, not one of these applications has been successful.

According to source within the ministry, the Czechs reject most asylum applications as a matter of policy unless they come from a small list of countries where the government believes persecution is indeed taking place. Kyrgyzstan is not on this list.

Figures provided by the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, show that the acceptance rate for asylum applications in the Czech Republic is well below the EU average - only 1 per cent, compared to 15 per cent in the union as a whole.

Marta Miklusakova, the UNHCR representative in Prague, told IWPR, "People often wait three to four years to find out whether their asylum request has been granted. Czech refugee camps are not designed for such long stays, even though they generally meet international standards in terms of basic living conditions."

According to Anatoly, a camp-dweller who is organising a pressure group for the rights of Kyrgyz asylum-seekers, there are currently over one hundred of his compatriots sitting it out in various detention centres around the country.

Some have fled political persecution, others grinding poverty, but all appear to have fallen victim to unscrupulous syndicates back home who promised to arrange asylum abroad.

Anatoly, who brought his family with him, said, "An entire network of people, engaged in the illegal transfer of citizens to the Czech Republic, is at work in Kyrgyzstan."

He has formed a pressure group in the camp which aims to defend the rights of those Kyrgyz refugees who have already arrived in the country, while dissuading those back home from taking the same step.

Over the last few years, a steady number of Kyrgyz have sought asylum in the Czech Republic, and observers believe this could increase significantly when the country is integrated into the EU next year.

Recent arrivals at the refugee camps already tell of middlemen offering to buy them a passage to Germany or Austria if the Czechs reject their applications. It's an attractive proposition since the Czechs do not forcibly deport asylum seekers whose bids are turned down, but merely leave them to fend for themselves.

Conditions in the camp are testing the patience of the refugees to breaking point. There are complaints that that staff are openly spiteful towards those whom they are meant to be looking after. An elderly Kyrgyz pointed out that "there are lawyers at the camp who constantly remind us of our duties, but we have been told nothing of our rights".

In January, two refugees at one of the camps - an Armenian and a Ukrainian - went on hunger strike to protest against the conditions. Both men recently stopped their protest, but the atmosphere of frustration remains.

Yet despite these hardships, the Kyrgyz are unanimously against going back home. Whatever the grounds on which they requested political asylum abroad, they all believe they'll be persecuted if they return.

Venera Jumataeva is a RFE/RL journalist

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