Refugees in the Czech Republic? Not a trace – but still a problem

A demonstration supporting the refugees and immigrants during the European migrant crisis in fall 2015. The protest took place in Prague, at the main square (Wenceslas Square, 17. October 2015)

Czech society is polarised by attitudes to refugees but the situation is absurd given that only 1,156 have applied for asylum in a country of some ten million people. Calm and objective discussion is in short supply as xenophobia and hysteria drive the debate.

Should countries take in refugees and, if so, how many? Is the Czech Republic an immigration country? What does integration signify? And what about issues like mainstream culture, headscarves, multiculturalism? In the Czech Republic, a country where migrants make up around four percent of the population (the majority of whom come from Slovakia, Ukraine and Vietnam), none of these topics has been debated before. Now, in the light of the so-called refugee crisis, these issues are now hot topics.

Those touting simplistic answers have quickly found themselves on the front foot. Populists have seized the opportunity to stir up panic. First and foremost is President Miloš Zeman and his rallying cries such as “Not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims”, or his assertion that the refugee crisis is “an invasion organised by the Muslim Brotherhood”. Together with new initiatives such as IvČRn (“We don’t want Islam in the Czech Republic”), which networks with Pegida, the AfD and other older established right-wing extremist groups, Zeman has paved the way for Islamophobia and done so in a country that is home to virtually no Muslims. Islamist terror attacks and refugees have been thrown into the same pot. People fleeing crisis-torn regions have been reduced to their religion and talked up as a danger to national security.

The Role of the Media

The media have also played a major role. MF Dnes, the most widely read “reputable” newspaper in the Czech Republic, has run headlines such as “Wave of 200,000 refugees about to roll over Czech Republic”. The issue of how to deal with people fleeing their home country was reduced to a matter of security, with the refugees being turned into a dehumanised, dangerous mass. Many of those in the media have also trumpeted the “economic refugee” cliché – that of a young man with a smartphone forcing his way through the border fences to live a better life at the expense of the European taxpayer.

In doing so, the same widespread prejudicial remarks directed at the Roma in the Czech Republic, such as their alleged lack of willingness to pull their weight or integrate, have been assigned to the refugees. In the course of the debate surrounding the relocation quotas for refugees proposed by the European Union, the Czech media propounded the kind of aggressive anti-EU stance that had otherwise only been known in the United Kingdom. Accordingly, online discussion forums highly critical of Western Europe’s open-door culture and EU policy have, in addition to social networks, become a venue for hateful comments. The role played by Kremlin-friendly online media that actively strive to manipulate the news situation in the Czech Republic should also not be underestimated.

Civil Society Response

An indication of the absurd nature of the debate in the Czech Republic is that, in a country with a population of some ten million in 2015, a mere 1,156 people have applied for asylum, the majority of whom are from Ukraine, followed by Cuba, Syria and Vietnam. Until the closure of the Balkan route, refugees saw the Czech Republic as a transit country to Western Europe. Refugees that did not succeed in crossing the Czech Republic undetected were detained in camps. Here, refugees – some of them children – were forced to spend three months or more in a prison-like facility and charged a daily fee for this involuntary stay. Both the conditions that prevailed in these detention camps and the fact that children were also held there were denounced by the Czech Ombudswoman as a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. Meanwhile, the discussion surrounding these detention camps has become obsolete, as refugees have largely avoided the country since the Czech Republic’s treatment of refugees was made public.

Civil society has slowly but surely responded to these developments. Many Czechs want to help the refugees and put a stop to growing xenophobia. To this end, several thousand Czech volunteers went to Budapest and subsequently the borders with Hungary, Serbia, Slovenia and Greece. For days, weeks and sometimes months on end, they handed out food and clothing, lent a hand with medical care, set-up and clean-up operations. Today, the “Czech Team”, as the volunteers have come to be known, are one of the most important aid groups in Europe. In Prague, the “Railway Station Initiative” (Iniciativa Hlavák) has frequently looked after destitute refugees following their release from the detention camps, given them accommodation and helped them with their onward travel. Like many other initiatives, the Prague-based Klinika centre has collected donations. Left wing and other groups have responded to anti-refugee marches and anti-Islam rallies and protested in favour of solidarity with refugees.

Moderate politicians under pressure

Despite all this, the fear of refugees in the Czech Republic shapes the debate and almost two-thirds of the population refuse to take in even war refugees. Both the government and Prime Minister Sobotka, who is the most likely person to advocate constructive dialogue, are therefore facing enormous pressure and fear that they will lose voters if they go against majority opinion. In terms of European policy, the Czech government consistently toes the line of the Visegrád Group (Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia). This means that it rejects any form of refugee quota and, above all, strives to tighten the EU’s external borders. In September 2015, the Czech Republic, along with Hungary, Slovakia and Romania, voted against a proposal to relocate 120,000 refugees within the EU that would have helped alleviate the situation in heavily burdened countries such as Greece and Italy. Under the EU’s distribution key for relocating refugees, based on economic and political criteria, the Czech Republic would be required to take in 1,591 refugees. The Czech government refuses to implement this majority decision.

The refugee issue is the subject of highly contentious discussion in the Czech Republic and people quickly find themselves being forced to adopt a stance. Based on whichever side they take, people are immediately pigeonholed and brushed off as being either a “racist” or a “do-gooder“. Both this polarisation and the compartmentalised thinking that comes with it make it difficult to hold an objective conversation on immigration and all the challenges and opportunities that it presents. Calm and objectiveness would be the ideal combination for allaying the hysteria surrounding a problem that does not even exist.

This article is part of our dossier "Crossing borders – refugee and asylum policy in Europe".

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