According to a March survey by the Public Opinion Research Centre of the Institute of Sociology of the Academy of Sciences, more than half of Czechs feel there are too many foreigners living in the Czech Republic and nearly a fifth believe that the country should stop taking in refugees. It turns out that those who say the country is a home to too many foreigners are older and, surprisingly, also left-leaning individuals.
This is paradoxical, since ccording to Amnesty International's latest report, in 2005 out of 3,750 asylum seekers in the Czech Republic, only 219, that is 5.8 % of applicants, were granted asylum. Considering the world total number of asylum seekers and persons with official refugee status was 2,799,500, the argument that the Czech Republic should accept fewer refugees is ludicrous. This opinion is obviously not supported by statistics or reality.
As of December, 2008, the Czech Foreigner Police office informed that the number of foreigners living legally in the Czech Republic is 438,301. Of that number, 172,927 have a permanent status. Others are mainly holders of long-term temporary residency permits. In the Czech Republic, a country of nearly 10.5 million, foreigners make up 3.9 percent of the population.
It is true that the press has recently been giving some attention to the fact that the country's population increase -- as much as 90%, in fact -- can largely be attributed to immigration, but that's mostly because the birth rate has been so low for so many years. In fact, in 2004, it was reported that the Czech Republic has the second lowest birthrate in the world. Though the birthrate has begun to rise, ever-so-slightly, in 2007, the Czech Republic still had the second lowest birthrate in Europe after Slovenia.
The Czechs' institutional and social xenophobia has further been exasperated by the economic crisis and rising unemployment. In February, the Czech government came up with a scheme to push foreigners out of the country. Based on the prognosis that 12,000 foreign workers could lose their jobs in the first three months of 2009, and that the work visa of 70,000 additional individuals will expire, the government decided to offer a voluntary program: a free plane ticket home and a 500 euro "motivational contribution." The foreigners who want to take advantage of this "service," which is available for eight months, have to apply within one month of losing their jobs due to the economic crisis.
This controversial program had wide-spread public support, judging from the surveys of public opinion the newspapers published. However, it was ill-conceived according to experts on refugee and foreigner integration. Firstly, the "project of voluntary returns" was conceived, based on an assumed link between rising unemployment and crime within the foreign worker community, for which there is no statistical support. Secondly, the program was created without a deep understanding of the situations within which many foreign workers find themselves. Many of them have large debt they owe the sometimes mafia-like recruitment agencies, which prevents the workers from leaving the country prematurely. Additionally, the cost of returning home for many of them is much higher than 500 euro, and thus prohibitive.
So far, about 1,000 international workers have taken advantage of the program. The government has vowed to also make this program available to foreigners living in the Czech Republic illegally. Simultaneously, the police have been conducting raids and random checks of businesses, sweeping up foreigners who they deem could be in the country illegally. During these raids, they also apparently inform their targets that they can apply to receive government aid to leave the country. What a fiasco!
In an interview with the weekly Respekt, Marketa Kadlecova, coordinator of the project Migration of the People in Need, urged that the Ministry of Internal Affairs should collaborate with the refugee community organizations, who have approached the ministry with suggestions for effective solutions. Martin Rozumek, immigration lawyer and director of the Organisation for Aid to Refugees, argues that the Czech government should primarily focus on cracking down on the mafia-like recruitment agencies which bring workers to the Czech Republic, often bound by highly exploitative contracts (collecting up to 50% of the workers' salaries as fees, for instance).
What gives me hope is that the younger generations are actually more interested, and less threatened by the idea of diversity. I hope that is the case, anyway. The Czechs, as much as anyone, benefit from contact with other cultures. I hope the younger generation will pioneer a more open, truly multicultural, and just society. Teachers, too, can play their part in helping to encourage critical thinking and media analysis. Here is an excellent lesson plan by the organization People In Need (Člověk v tísni) on xenophobia in the Czech media, for instance, which Czech instructors can take advantage of.
What moved me was this poem by a Vietnamese poet living in the Czech Republic.
Here is an excerpt from To My Wife by NGO VAN Cuong:
The town of Mladá Boleslav is so sad in the fall, my dear
Though I am half the world away,
I think of you each day, my dear
Such longing I have inside
I think of home
(...) I have to work like an ox
and I earn so little money
After work I'm all broken
Those who've come here are not at all lazy
(... ) Take care of the children while I'm not home
Educated and nice children are a gift
So I have the strength to go on
I will keep earning money
I could not earn at home
Only two more years and our family will be together again