By Tomáš Jungwirth.Photo by Moyan Brenn | Flickr licensed by CC BY 2.0

Although the European refugee crisis has not had a material impact on the number of asylum requests in the Czech Republic, there are notable ramifications in its wake, particularly with the escalation of public debate. As of spring 2017, the political focus has shifted towards labor migrants who are on one hand in high demand on the Czech job market but at the same time ostracized and denounced as criminals. The Ministry of Interior has launched an initiative aimed to substantially curb migrants’ rights. This constitutes a part of the campaign for the general elections held this October, yet how high migration-related topics will rise on the public agenda ahead of the vote remains to be seen.

With the so-called EU refugee crisis gradually disappearing from media headlines, by late-2016 migration had also momentarily faded from the Czech public agenda. However, with the general election looming in October 2017, there is an effort to bring it back to the forefront. This time, as opposed to asylum-seekers, the discussion focuses on labor migrants including EU citizens. In the background of this development are nationalistic and xenophobic sentiments, fears of foreign workers dragging down wages, as well as real problems in civic coexistence. Nevertheless, just how significant the potential mobilization of migration-related topics will be prior to the election remains to be seen. The following study attempts to identify the most important developments which have taken place in the past several months, and also to provide some outlook on what to expect in the near future.

 

1. Public and political discourse

a. Impressions v. facts

What the Czech Republic had witnessed in the 2015-2016 period was a migration debate on steroids. For decades, migration, asylum and integration of foreigners had been political and social non-issues. People working in the field had long found it difficult to attract media or the attention of politicians, and virtually all relevant policy was being adopted without much ado or broader public interest.

This situation changed dramatically and rapidly with the outbreak of the EU migration crisis in late-2014/early-2015, catching many stakeholders unprepared. In a matter of months, irregular migration, particularly from the Middle East and Africa, had become the number one political issue. Similar development could of course be observed among most European states, however, it appears that for the Central and Eastern Europeans it was even more of a novelty. The heatedness of the debate and the tensions which ensued reflect that.

Still, for several reasons – and unlike many European countries including Hungary – Czech Republic hasn’t in reality encountered a substantial spike in asylum claims by irregular migrants. In fact, the number of applications for international protection stood low in 2015 and even dropped further by 2016. For a while Czech Republic was an important transit country en route to Germany or Sweden but the shut-down of Hungary’s borders changed that. One could say that despite all the frenzy, the situation on the ground remains calm. In addition, as a result of the EU-Turkey agreement and the closure of the Balkan migration route, Central Europe at large has also seen the situation for Central Europe has normalize somewhat.

TABLE: INTERNATIONAL PROTECTION IN THE CZECH REPUBLIC

YEAR

APPLICATIONS FOR INTERNATIONAL PROTECTION

TOTAL DECISIONS

ASYLUM GRANTED

SUBSIDIARY PROTECTION GRANTED

2013

707

978

95

256

2014

1156

1012

82

294

2015

1525

1387

71

399

2016

1475

1410

148

302

Source: Ministry of Interior of the Czech Republic[1]

b. Targeting migrant workers

Even though it is complicated to find hard data to support the following assumption, many signs point towards the fact that by late-2016 the migration debate in the Czech Republic began cooling down. Most of what could have been said had been said, and since no immediate crisis was taking place the public resonance of the topic was naturally decreasing.

Nevertheless, it was a safe bet to predict that many politicians would make their best effort to push migration back towards the top of the agenda in the context of the upcoming parliamentary elections this October. In fact from January 2017, the Minister of Interior and the Social Democrat’s vice-chair Milan Chovanec has begun doing just that, cynically decrying the alleged criminality conducted by migrant workers, i.e. foreigners including EU citizens in possession of a valid work and residence permits (a vast majority of the “crimes” were in fact minor offenses, mostly traffic-related). He undertook multiple demonstrative visits to regional industrial centers which employ larger numbers of foreigners (Pilsen and the Kvasiny area), and even suggested that their labor contracts be terminated as a result of them committing minor offenses, thus effectively advocating for a violation of the labor code.[2]

The issue has gained additional spin in the context of a heavily reported police raid in a company which had been employing Ukrainian workers in possession of Polish visas.[3] This opened a Pandora ’s Box of numerous issues starting from visa regimes, impacts of migration on the domestic labor market, all the way to questions of peaceful cohabitation and even identity.

c. Fragmentation of extremists

One notable characteristic of the Czech political landscape is the significant fragmentation of extremist forces. While the Muslim population and Islam as such have been politically expedient as key mobilizing topics for large parts of the society in the past years, attempts for the transformation of the non-formal platform Islám v ČR nechceme (“We don’t want Islam in the Czech Republic”) into a relevant political force became futile. To a large extent, that is but a result of internal power squabbles among the hardline islamophobic leaders, undermining the credibility of what may have become a movement of sorts.[4]

As it appears, the half-Japanese Czech populist politician Tomio Okamura who is one of the country’s leading islamophobes, will be struggling to repeat his party’s (initially called Úsvit before fragmenting while the Okamura wing established an offshoot named SPD) election result from 2013 (6.9 %) and thus secure at least some seats in the new parliament. No other openly anti-migrant, xenophobic party appears very likely to follow suit (though Petr Robejšek’s ambitions, contacts and capabilities should not be underrated[5]). The other part of the story, however, is that much of the xenophobic parlance as much as policy proposals themselves was readily incorporated by mainstream political parties. Even if they do not fare particularly well in the election, the so-called “phobes” have already managed to radicalize the public and poison the discourse for years to come.

2. Key legislative and policy changes

a. Replacement of the pro-refugee Minister for Human Rights

The most outspoken Czech governmental official in defense of the rights of marginalized groups including refugees and migrants in the past years had been the Minister for Human Rights, Equal opportunity and Legislation Jiří Dienstbier.[6] However, in the course of a government reshuffle in November 2016, the PM had removed Dienstbier from office, citing problems with comprehensibility of his policies with the voters.[7] His successor, the young social democratic politician Jan Chvojka, indicated that he won’t continue in the attitude of his predecessor, and instead will pursue a more conciliatory approach in relation to the prevailing public opinion, and also towards President Miloš Zeman who is well known for his dismissive and often shocking statements on refugees, minorities, human rights defenders, and the civil society at large.[8] As a result, migrants-assisting NGOs had lost an outspoken ally in the government.

b. Paradoxes related to foreign workforce

As mentioned above, migrant workers have been taken hostage in this new era of politicking. At the same time, however, the Czech economy has been increasingly dependent on workforce coming from abroad. Faced with some 140 000 vacant positions on the job market and under pressure from large industrial employers – and despite opposition from trade unions – in February the government has, for instance, more than doubled the monthly quota for Ukrainian workers who will be allowed to work in the Czech Republic from 320 to 800.[9]

In late February 2017, the government adopted a document named Measures for Addressing Security and Public Orders in Industrial Areas and Their Vicinity in Relation to Increased Employment of Foreigners, tabled by the Ministry of Interior[10], reflecting upon the outcomes of a new inter-ministry working group tasked with this issue. The envisioned measures shall lead to increased police activity in the relevant locations, legislative changes on residence and accommodation of foreigners, and the creation of a practical manual for affected municipalities.

All in all, the government’s focus at the moment is very much on the repressive measures while virtually omitting pro-active policies which could substantially improve the foreign workers’ situation and enhance their social integration. This would require closer involvement of both the municipalities and NGOs providing social services, but perhaps first and foremost the employers themselves. Instead, the government seems to be buying into the scapegoating of hundreds of thousands of foreigners residing legally in the Czech Republic – often for many years – thus creating a real risk for social cohesion.

c. Amendment to the Aliens Act

The Aliens Act[11] pertaining to the status of foreigners in the Czech Republic including work and residence permits, is one of the most frequently amended and heavily contested laws. In light of the aforementioned, it was probably only a matter of time before an effort would be made to alter its provisions in a way which would substantially curb the rights of the more than 500 000 foreign citizens living in the Czech Republic.

A suitable opportunity for this became an extensive and complex amendment to the Act tabled by the government with the primary aim to transpose new EU directives.[12] The year-and-a-half-long drafting process, however, yielded a fairly moderate proposal, introducing certain restrictions (e.g. on the right to legal counsel in residence proceedings) but at the same time also some progressive measures (such as the public prosecutors’ oversight over the much-criticized detention facilities for irregular migrants).

Then came an unanticipated, blindsided blow. In a manifest attempt to sidetrack the official legislative procedure, the Ministry of Interior used a single social democratic MP as a white horse, tabling a last-minute comprehensive and highly restrictive amendment to the bill. If adopted it would abolish all independent judiciary oversight over administrative decisions on residence permits; enable authorities to prolong detention by additional six months due to lack of cooperation by the detainee’s state of origin; prolong the residence period necessary for an employed foreigner to become a freelancer/businessperson from 2 to 5 years; overregulate the employment of foreigners, etc. Many of the provisions are likely in violation of EU law, and ECtHR and domestic court practice.[13]

Following a publicizing of the issue initiated by NGOs and its vocal denouncement by actors such as the Czech Chamber of Commerce and the Czech Bar Association, the Ministry of Interior, as sponsor of the initial bill, found itself in an awkward situation facing questions on why had it sidetracked a process which it was effectively in control of. The real answer, of course, is that much of the amendment’s content could not stand the test of compliance with EU law and human rights standards, and/or would face harsh criticism from other members of the government. From both a procedural and a sustentative point of view, this case has caused quite a stir and was met with a concerted effort by civil society agents to repel the amendment. On 7 April the final vote in the Chamber of Deputies took place. Following a heated debate, the most controversial issue – abolition of court review in residence matters – was dismissed but all the other restrictive provisions had passed. The bill has now moved to the Senate which may still propose amendments to limit its restrictive impact.

d. State Integration Program

In early 2016 the Ministry of Interior has launched a so-called State Integration Program (SIP)[14], a new concept of aid provided to successful asylum seekers. A tailored approach to each and every refugee promised to ensure better accessibility of the necessary social services, language courses, employment opportunities but also housing, furnishing etc. Since not more than 150 applicants are granted asylum and a couple hundred people get subsidiary protection annually (excluding positive decisions on prolongation of subsidiary protection)[15], it may have been assumed that the strain on the new system wouldn’t be too great. However, the first year of the program yielded mixed results at best. Caritas Czech Republic which was charged with overseeing implementation as well as certain organizations directly involved in the program reported undervalued administrative costs, unreliability of the language agency responsible for ensuring all Czech language courses, and suboptimal communication with the Ministry of Interior as the main issues undermining the feasibility of the project. Altogether 319 clients have taken part in the SIP in its first year of existence.[16]

In early 2017 SUZ, a Ministry of Interior agency took over the implementation oversight over the program after no non-governmental organization expressed interest. It took several months to build the necessary institutional capacity and only in April it became clear who would be the service providers for 2017. This effectively means there is a significant time lapse in integration support provided to refugees. It is fair to appreciate that in contrast to some other countries in the region, the Czech government has made an effort to upgrade its refugee-integration scheme, however, it clearly needs to be further developed and enhanced in order to meet its envisioned goals.

3. Prospective dynamics

In the months to come the Czech migration debate will be shaped by ongoing political campaigns ahead of the October elections. However, what will be the exact role of migration-related issues is difficult to predict. It is certain that many politicians will still try to ab/use the topic to score points –by fueling fear and insecurity among the wider public, by a continuous denouncement of the Muslim community, by targeting migrants at large or even by waging identitarian wars and reigniting nationalism. Such initiatives may well result in certain legislative and policy changes taking place even ahead of the election. Mainstream political parties will probably step up the ongoing race to the bottom in repressive attitudes towards foreigners. They will be dragged further to the extreme by xenophobic populist politicians, even if a serious electoral breakthrough of any single one of them is far from certain.

On the other hand, public fatigue with migration as a political topic may have a role too. Whether disinterest will prevail depends very much on what the broader situation will look like. How will Europe manage in 2017 is of paramount importance. Favorable weather conditions will most probably once again increase migration pressure on Europe’s southern border. A potential terrorist attack could also have a remarkable impact on the dynamics. But if the situation on the ground remains generally calm, migration may end up as just one among a series of topics relevant to the Czech voter alongside low wages, corruption, administration management, tax dodging, blaming Brussels for just about anything, and so on.

By April 2017 all the polls suggest that the populist party ANO 2011, lead by the tycoon strongman Andrej Babiš, will have an easy job winning the election. Babiš has already managed the unthinkable, profiling himself as an anti-establishment candidate from the position of Minister of Finance and Deputy PM. Regardless of who would he then form a coalition with, a deflection from the overall predominantly moderate politics of the incumbent social democratic Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka is in the cards. Not least for migrants living in the Czech Republic, this isn’t good news.

Indeed, Babiš certainly isn’t an ideologue of Orbán’s or even Kaczynsky’s sort but he will do almost anything to up his popular appeal. This could even entail a reshaping of Czech Republic’s place within the V4. While at the moment, there are policy divisions in migration-related topics between Hungary and Poland on the one side and Czech Republic and Slovakia on the other, Babiš may steer Czechia further apart from Germany and other western states and position himself as an outright ally of his Hungarian and Polish anti-liberal-minded counterparts. Then again, a significant variable will be the vested interests of large employers who will pressure him into more open migration policies, even if for different reasons than the civil activists. As of now, only one thing is clear – if Babiš really does become PM, he will not find himself in an easy position.

 

Tomáš Jungwirth is Policy officer, Consortium of Migrants Assisting Organizations in the Czech Republic and Research Fellow, Association of International Affairs



[4] This development has been already noted and to an extent foreseen by Magda Faltová in her October 2016 assessment, see http://www.cepolicy.org/publications/czech-republic-migration-trends-and-political-dynamics

[11] Act No. 326/1999 Coll., on the residence of aliens in the Czech Republic.

[12] Namely Directive 2014/66/EU and Directive 2014/36/EU.

[16] Caritas Czech Republic briefing on SIP, 17 January 2017