By Christian Jorgensen
Per a poll by the Center for Public Opinion Research (CVVM) released earlier this spring, 61% of Czech citizens are against accepting any additional refugees into the Czech Republic. The same CVVM poll also showed that 73% of Czech citizens find refugees to be a major security threat to the Czech Republic, on par with the threat presented by ISIL.
A look at the actual numbers of people seeking asylum in the Czech Republic makes this popular fear somewhat surprising. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) there were only 3,644 registered refugees in the Czech Republic, a mere 0.03% of the Czech population (10.52 million). Additionally, in 2016 only 64 refugees were either relocated or resettled in the Czech Republic and the country was estimated to have 1,475 asylum applications still open in 2016. (For comparison, Germany handled about 745,155 applications for asylum that year, and the small country of Malta handled 1,930). Adding together all the statistical numbers of refugees, the portion equals out to only 0.05% of the Czech population. So, with such small numbers, what is this fear based on?
Many may think that the estimated count of refugees currently in the country do not take into consideration the number of people crossing over the Czech border on their way to seek asylum in more popular destinations, such as Germany. However, the routes most often taken by people seeking asylum originating from Italy and Greece in most cases completely bypass the Czech Republic (see map, below). Unlike other members of the “Visegrad group” such as Hungary, the Czech Republic is not a very popular stopover country on the route across Europe.
Are Czechs perhaps feeling overwhelmed by the pressures of even a relatively minor influx of people from other countries? A look at the statistics would say otherwise. In 2015 only 29,602 people immigrated to the country. Compare that number to the 25,684 Czech residents emigrating (i.e, leaving) in 2015 and a low birthrate of only 9.5 (per 1000, 203rd in the world) it is easy to see that Czech Republic is not having a population surplus problem (if anything, rather the opposite). Are Czech citizens being told otherwise?
The Czech government has been known to exaggerate the number of migrants coming to the Czech Republic via both politicians’ statements and in official government reports. Czech Deputy Prime Minister, Andrej Babiš, said that taking any more refugees could lead to, “[T]he next day 15 or 20 thousand more will come to our doorstep.” He added that “we have thousands of non-registered people that threaten our citizens.” His argument that thousands of people are coming to the doors of the Czech Republic is very off from the official numbers mentioned earlier by the UNHCR and other migration agencies.
In fact, Czech has in the past been a country that produced great numbers seeking refuge. Following the end of the Second World War and the communist takeover of Czechoslovakia, many fled what makes up modern Czech Republic. In 1945, 10,000 citizens fled the region, increasing to 50,000 Czechs following the communist takeover. In 1968, during what is now known as the Prague Spring or the Warsaw pact invasion, between 40,000 and 70,000 Czechs immediately fled the region to seek asylum in the West. As a people that have benefited greatly from the refugee and asylum system, it makes one wonder why they have such a negative view towards refugees.
So, if individuals seeking asylum are not crossing the border in great numbers, not being resettled in great numbers, and the country is not being overwhelmed with immigrants generally, then what really is behind this major fear of refugees in the Czech Republic? An educated guess is that much of it has been created or reinforced by the rhetoric the Czech government has used since the refugee crisis began.
The ruling presidential party (Social Democratic Party) has been vocal about their fear of refugees both to the Czech people and abroad. Press Secretary for President Miloš Zeman, Jiří Ovčáček said in 2016 that, “by [the Czech Republic] accepting migrants, we would create fertile ground for barbaric attacks.” In 2015 President Zeman, in his typical bellicose style, compared the refugee crisis to a tsunami that will kill him. Zeman continues to fan the flames to this groundless threat and has promoted the idea that Czech citizens should begin arming themselves to prevent a potential “Super Holocaust” as he believes the refugee crisis in Europe to be an organized invasion by Muslim terrorists, although Zeman has yet to provide any proof of such claims. All this fearful rhetoric by the Czech Presidential Office is interesting since Czech has never been the site of a terror or mass attack by refugees- or anyone else for that matter. (The closest thing was probably a fake “ISIS attack” staged by an anti-immigrant group in Prague in 2016). The Czech Republic has even been listed as a country with a low risk of potential terrorist attacks by such governmental offices such as the British Home Office.
The threat of terror attacks is not the only fear being pushed by the Czech government in connection to refugees. Czech officials have also been known to promote the idea that accepting refugees will lead to the collapse of Czech society. Czech Interior Minister Milan Chovanec said that by accepting more refugees by “the proposed [EU] quota it could lead to a collapse of society.” President Zeman offered little hope to promoting the belief migrants may benefit society, saying that, “the integration of Muslims is impossible.” All of this has been said without providing any evidence but can easily lead people to believe that people immigrating or seeking asylum in Czech can only harm society.
The members of Czech’s ruling government are at least partly responsible for the latest polling numbers showing fear of refugees and migrants. This is becoming an all too common method by many governments and parties in Europe, to create fear of migration by making groundless statements without providing any evidence.
With a presidential election coming up early next year let’s take a look at the context of fear of refugees among the presidential candidate platforms. Although it is a contentious issue within Czech society, it doesn’t seem to be one among the presidential campaigns. Of the eleven candidates still running campaigns the majority all seem to hold the same policy towards refugees: deter and reject. Only one candidate, Michal Horáček, takes a slightly more welcoming stance- and only slightly. So if the majority of candidates are promoting a pessimistic view towards refugees and migrants; will the fear of migration be an issue candidates use to drive voters to the poll or will “anti-immigrant” become the status-quo in Czech politics?