PRAGUE (Reuters) - Dozens of migrants went on hunger strike in a Czech detention centre to protest against the length of their stay and the threat of repatriation, the Interior Ministry and volunteer workers said.
The Czech Republic has avoided large-scale migration through its territory, as most of the hundreds of thousands who have fled to Europe this year to escape poverty and war in the Middle East have passed via the Balkans to Germany through neighbouring Austria.
Those who do come through and do not claim asylum are detained, often held for weeks in centres and facing the threat of being returned to the EU countries where they did claim asylum or entered the Czech Republic from.
The Czechs say the policy is strictly in line with European treaties but the length of detentions and conditions in the detention centres have led to criticism by human rights watchdogs.
The protest erupted on Tuesday at a newly opened facility in Drahonice, some 90 kilometres (55 miles) west of the capital Prague, and continued on Wednesday.
“In the morning (on Tuesday) it was 44 people who started the hunger strike, then in the afternoon it was over 60,” centre volunteer Petra Damms told Reuters by phone.
“It is not because of the physical conditions that they are striking, it is the extension of their detention, they don’t know why.”
Damms said tensions rose after 40 people were transported out from Drahonice overnight, fuelling detainees’ fears of deportation.
An Interior Ministry spokeswoman said those migrants were sent to the EU country in which they claimed asylum.
“Based on this, some foreigners got the wrong idea that the people were returned to their country of origin,” Gabriela Vankova said.
Most of the 144 people currently in Drahonice were brought from another detention centre in Bela-Jezova, which has been harshly criticized recently due to the conditions there.
Czech authorities detained 7,201 migrants in the first nine months of this year, usually for up to 90 days. Many have journeyed on to Germany on their release.
Czechs voted in September by a small minority against quotas to distribute asylum seekers across the European Union, putting them on a collision course with EU authorities and some other EU countries.
Reporting by Robert Muller; Editing by Tom Brown and editing by John Stonestreet