Can the Czech Runoff Election Impact the Country’s Stance on Migration?

On Friday and Saturday, voters will head to the polls in the Czech Republic for a presidential runoff vote between incumbent Miloš Zeman and his competitor, Jiří Drahoš. The polls are very close, with Czeska Televisa 24 / MF Dnes reporting a slight lead for Drahos with 47 percent of the vote to Zeman’s 43 percent, with ten percent still undecided.

In Czech, the president appoints the prime minister, making this vote more than a referendum on Zeman’s past performance. Waiting in the wings is billionaire populist and recently elected Prime Minister Andrej Babiš of the ANO (“Yes”) party, who has endorsed Zeman and expects his support if he wins in forming a government. A vote for Zeman then is a vote for Babiš, who is under investigation by Czech authorities for decades-old corruption charges related to EU subsidy fraud, charges which he denies. Whether this association is an advantage or a liability will only become clear this weekend.

As we have explained previously, the immigration debate in the Czech Republic is extremely tilted towards immigration restrictionist views, with nearly all parties and political figures united in their opposition to accepting asylum seekers as part of the EU’s proposed quota distribution system, and politicians making outspoken remarks against migrants from Muslim majority countries. Both Babis and Zeman have in the past made remarks characterizing people who migrate or seek asylum as dangerous threats to Czech citizens, with Zeman comparing Muslims in general to Nazis and warning of a “super-Holocaust” during an interview with the Guardian in 2016. Such violent rhetoric has been accompanied by a rise in hate speech and an antagonistic environment for minorities. (Given that there are very few accepted refugees in the country, threats and attacks have rather been aimed at minority groups such as Roma and groups who show support for refugees, according to Amnesty International.)  In addition, Zeman is an important figure in the Visegrad Group, the club of countries (with Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary) that have strongly opposed EU distribution of people seeking asylum.

But where does his opponent Drahoš stand, and would a win for him be an opening for a change in the country’s stance on migration?

Drahoš, formerly the president of the Czech Academy of Sciences, lays out his stance on refugees on his website, where it is second on his list of “frequently asked questions“. He states, “As a scientist, I am used to finding solutions to problems and I believe that even the refugee crisis has its solution.” This would consist of the following steps, according to Drahoš:

  • Strengthen secret services to help identify people entering the EU and offer assistance to Italy,
  • Invest in measures to improve the living conditions in countries people are currently fleeing from,
  • Distinguish between “real” refugees and people who are seeking welfare benefits, who he ideally would not let in at all,
  • Terrorism is not a reason for excluding refugees and can be combatted, but we must fight against the erosion of our values and standards,
  • Migrants should be interviewed at European borders to determine whether they are willing to embrace European norms and values.

In short, Drahoš embraces a center-right stance on asylum, a view that on the surface has much in common with other mainstream parties in Europe, such as Mark Rutte’s VVD in the Netherlands. These proposals also largely match the solutions stated by the Visegrad group. The “V4” also calls for aid packages to incentivize people to stay in their home countries and for better distinction between what they refer to as “economic migrants” and refugees. Drahoš’ policy proposals fit squarely in, with the exception that he does not outright oppose quotas (at least here), but rather argues that forcing people to stay in a country they to which they did not intend to immigrate violates the principle of freedom of movement, a creative argument that somewhat avoids the question.

His proposals also enter familiar territory for the center-right immigration stance: ideas that sound tough but end up flirting with illegality or impossibility. For instance, pre-selecting between “real” refugees and others, “ideally” outside of the borders is an idea frequently floated but in violation of the ground principals of the 1951 Refugee Convention and other laws and treaties. Namely, individuals have a right to leave their own country, to enter a country to ask for asylum and to have their claims evaluated while they remain in the country. Sending them back to a country where they potentially face persecution or preventing them from entering before evaluating their claim risks violating binding international and European law. (We have pointed this out repeatedly in response to similar proposals by the Front National and the Tories.)

Further, conducting interviews to ascertain whether individuals adhere to “European values” is perhaps not illegal but highly unrealistic. What are “European values”? How is asking someone to adhere to European values different or better than holding them to follow the law? How can you square the requirement to hold a certain set of beliefs in order to enter with the European legal concept of freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights article nine?

These policies differ from Zeman not so much in substance as in style. While Zeman has run a “non-campaign” and has not proposed concrete policies, he has made his opposition to migrants, and especially people from Muslim majority countries, well-known. In an interview with Večernje Novosti in 2017, he repeated his typical war-like language to describe migrants and Muslims more generally:

“…[I]t is said that in Africa, at least several million people are ready to migrate to Europe. Because they are mostly Muslims whose culture is incompatible with European culture, I do not believe in the ability to assimilate them. 

By the way, when you look at the history of Europe, it was actually a constant war with Muslims. And I think that Serbia has experienced it, among other things, in Kosovo’s field.” 

These comments don’t elucidate much in the way of policy recommendations and do not differentiate between migrants who are Muslim or citizens of Europe who are Muslim. In either case, he is suggesting that they do not belong because of their religious affiliation and should be viewed as a hostile enemy, as the Ottoman military forces were in Kosovo in 1389, but he does not promote any policy proposals to exclude them. It is rhetoric that promotes fear and enmity without directing it anywhere concrete- perhaps because policies that exclude or discriminate on the basis of religious belief violate numerous European laws and do not stand up to judicial scrutiny.

The fact is, even with a incomplete or unrealistic immigration policy, Drahoš presents an alternative to rhetoric that relies on fears from back in the Middle Ages. The policies he promotes do not suggest a major departure for the Czech Republic’s stance on refugees and migrants, but they do take a risk in actually spelling out ideas that can be subjected to debate. As the President of Czech does not legislate, his stance on the refugee issue is mainly symbolic. But for voters, its a question of a leader who sounds like other mainstream European leaders, or one who sounds like he is expecting all-out war against a religious minority.

 

Sources and Further Reading
The latest poll for the election favors Drahos, a tenth of voters still hesitate, [Czech] Czeska Televiza, Jan. 22, 2018
ANO supports Zeman for President, Babis for Prime Minister, [CzechNovinky (also linked to on official ANO website), Jan. 22, 2018
If I wanted to hide something, I would have stayed in the shadows, [Czech] Andrej Babis’ blog in iDnez.cz, Feb. 2016
Milos Zeman: the hardline Czech leader fanning hostility to refugees, The Guardian, Sept. 2016
Facebook has a problem with death threats in the Czech Republic, Vice News, Nov. 2017
Czech Republic 2016/2017, Amnesty International Report
Frequently Asked Questions, [Czech], JiriDrahos.cz (campaign website)
Guide to Article Nine: Freedom of Thought, Conscience and Religion, [pdf] Council of Europe
Interview of the President of the Republic for Večernje Novosti, [Czech], Reprinted on the President’s website, http://www.zemanmilos.cz
Header image: Via Ivan Centes on Flickr, http://bit.ly/2neIdqB (CC BY-NC 2.0)
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Sympathy for the Visegrad Group? A look at the V4’s migration proposals

In European migration politics, the governments of the so-called “Visegrad Group” or V4 – Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia– have set themselves apart with their consistently strong stance against EU refugee policy over the past few years. The four strongly oppose a quota distribution system collectively and take a harsh tone against both Brussels’ migration policy and people seeking asylum in their national media. (For an example, read “Will Fear of Refugees Become the Status Quo in Czech Politics?”). As the European Commission takes steps to potentially punish three of the countries for refusing to follow a specific EU resettlement policy, the countries show no sign of backing down. But is there room for compromise?

Drawing a line in the sand

The European Commission announced it was taking the first step in infringement proceedings against three of the four Visegrad states –Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic – for breaching Council decisions regarding relocation of people seeking international protection or asylum from Greece and Italy. Slovakia, who has legally challenged the relocation order and only accepts candidates based on strict preferences, has faced criticism but no threats of infringement (yet). Although Visegrad-adjacent Austria has also refused to accept any transfers of people, they are also off the hook in this case because they promised to accept 50 people in May 2017, according to an EC report on resettlements.

The countries implicated have all separately reaffirmed their intention to defy any resettlement plan, despite the Commission’s warning of infringement. Warsaw quickly issued a statement in response the announcement, calling the Commission’s actions premature in light of pending cases with Slovakia and Hungary at the ECJ, stating, “Poland stands ready to plead its case before the Court of Justice.” Just last week, presidential frontrunner of the ANO 2011 party and current deputy Prime Minister Andrej Babiš told the Czech website Parlamentní listy: “As I said, I do not want a single refugee in the Czech Republic, not even temporarily.” And Viktor Orbán, Hungarian Prime Minister, connected his fight against resettling refugees to his ongoing efforts to stifle George Soros, telling students at a Hungarian cultural festival in Romania that Soros has been “using his money, people and institutions to transport migrants into Europe.” In the same speech, he said that Hungary would continue to endeavor to offer a “calm, Christian life” to its inhabitants and  “will not take in people who raise the concern in us that they will change our cultural identity.”

These public statements from Visegrad leadership are clear about what (or rather, who) they don’t want. But what do they offer as an alternative for handling migration on the European level?

What does Visegrad Want?

On July 19th, the Visegrad Group met in Budapest and issued a Joint Statement on Migration that outlined their position- not just what they stand opposed to, but what they offer as an alternative. In it, they reaffirm their commitment to a joint “consensus-based European solution” to dealing with migration. For the V4, the essential thing is to divide people seeking asylum from what they call “economic migrants”, a determination that they maintain should be made outside of EU territory but with the assistance of member states. Further, they write that any relocation schemes must be strictly voluntary, and the overall focus should be on preventing people from leaving their countries and entering Europe in the first place. The entire letter can be read here.

The tone of the letter is significantly subdued in comparison to what leading politicians have been telling their populations regarding asylum and Brussels, but that’s no reason to discard it. Let’s take a look at some of the key proposals and whether they are practical and further, whether they point to any areas that could lead to a compromise between the Visegrad Group and Commission.

1. Make asylum determinations outside of Europe

We believe that the precondition of any efficient strategy related to mixed migratory flows is to distinguish between genuine asylum seekers and economic migrants. The necessary assessments have to be completed outside the territory of the EU in administrative centres protected and supplied with the assistance and contribution of the EU and its Member States.

In order to deal with asylum “at the roots”, as they write, it is necessary to move the asylum process outside of EU territory. This proposal is a familiar one, as can be seen by our discussion of former French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen’s policy platform. There are several problems with this idea, but also an area of possible compromise.

One problem is the assumption inherent in this proposal that people migrating to Europe belong to either the category of asylum seekers or “economic migrants.” This division is confusing and artificial. In Europe, as all over the rest of the world, people migrate for a variety of reasons outside of seeking asylum. They may be seeking better opportunities and jobs, but they also might be hoping to reunite with a family member or loved one, access educational opportunities, gain medical treatment, or for any number of other reasons. They may not be able to access protection under the refugee convention, for instance, because authorities believe there are other safe areas to flee within their home country, but this doesn’t make their motives necessarily economic in nature. And importantly, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are not entitled to other forms of protection.

A second, stickier issue is the notion of completing assessments of people’s asylum claims outside EU territory. Nothing in EU or international law forbids the possibility of a state granting people asylum from a distance outside that state’s borders. In fact, countries do this all the time, often aided by government officials or NGOs within a country to identify people that can be transferred to another country to get protection.

The problem comes when this is posed as the only way of granting asylum. “Sequencing is crucial,” write the Visegrad Group, but legally, they have bound themselves to also accept refugees who apply from within their territory (as have all other European countries). The 1951 Refugee Convention and its follow up the 1967 Protocol both define refugees as someone who:

“owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”

The “outside their country” aspect is crucial. If countries were only willing to offer asylum to people who applied without leaving their own countries, then people would have to remain in a country where they are at risk while waiting for an answer- possibly facing death or torture. All V4 countries have signed both the 1951 Convention and its 1967 protocol (see UNHCR’s list of signatories for more details.) This binds them to accepting applications of asylum on their own territory, and to not “refouling” people (sending them back to places where they face persecution.) This definition of asylum as allowing people to leave their national borders to safety is also included within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states “everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” (The “seek” part is also important: it means you are entitled to ask for asylum, even if you don’t ultimately receive it.)

It should be clear that people needn’t remain in their own countries to seek asylum, and that the members of the Visegrad Group are obligated to process asylum claims of people who make it to their territory and ask for protection, just as the rest of Europe is. But so long as this is guaranteed, a compromise could see more asylum decisions being reached in sending countries, such as through embassies or special centers for that purpose, without excluding the right to seek asylum in the traditional way as well. This could indeed prevent people who have no viable claim for asylum from making perilous journeys while expediting the process for people who do have viable claims.

However, a major concern would be to ensure that assessments carried out abroad comply with legal standards and aren’t a way of moving the asylum process out of sight and out of mind.

2. Secure external EU borders

We need to be able to fully protect the external borders of the European Union. At the same time, we need to remove internal border controls. We need to make sure that no one can avoid being properly identified and registered before entering the territory of the EU.

This proposal also offers plenty of room for agreement with the rest of Europe. The idea of strengthening external border controls while providing free movement within the EU is an aspiration that is nearly universally shared. This can be seen by the dramatic budget and staffing increase over the last years for the European border agency Frontex, headed out of Warsaw, and increasing funds for Italy to manage asylum assessments (and deportations.)

However, the implication that everyone can be “properly identified” before entering the EU is problematic for a few reasons. First, as discussed above, its a right under international and European law to seek asylum in other countries. This right is not limited to those who are “properly identified.” In other words, providing ID is not a prerequisite to seeking asylum, and attempting to stop people from entering because they cannot provide ID might violate international law.

Throughout the asylum application process people are grilled on their stories and asked to provide as much evidence as possible to back up their claims of persecution and country origin. But it must be recognized that, when fleeing war or persecution, it is sometimes not possible to bring full documentation. For others, these important papers might be lost in transit. Still others might be stateless, in which case they may never have had proper identification documents to begin with. Any of these circumstances do not take away a person’s right to ask for protection.

3. Use aid to discourage “pull factors” and prevent people from leaving

We need a sustainable European solution with the long-term objective of a proactive involvement of the EU and its Member States in the most affected Third Countries of origin and transit including improving their living conditions.

The idea of preventing migration through increasing development aid is an unproven concept that has nevertheless been pushed by people as diverse as Jean Luc Melenchon in France and Mark Rutte in the Netherlands. The problem with the idea is that the EU already spend billions in development aid, but this aid may not reach people most vulnerable to persecution and war. Not to mention the fact that it does not address pull factors such as family reunification. Nevertheless, if aid is indeed aimed at improving living conditions and not at preventing people from leaving their country (as everyone is entitled to) then it is hard to see major downsides to ramping it up.

At the same time, there would appear to be room for improvement in this area from the states proposing the aid increase. The EU has targets for development aid to lower income countries known as “Official Development Assistance” (ODAs). In the latest Commission report on the subject (found here) it was noted that although progress has been made, the EU has not reached its collective goal of setting aside .7% of Gross National Income (GNI) for development aid.

The Visegrad states fall well below this goal, as well as below the less ambitious target set for countries who had joined the EU after 2002 (as all four Visegrad states did). The target for these countries was .33% of GNI, whereas all Visegrad states had reached between .12%-.14% in 2016.

So here too is an area of potential compromise: EU countries in general and Visegrad countries in particular could strive harder to reach their development assistance goals as part of an effort to improve living conditions in countries that currently experience high levels of emigration. But it should be remembered that development aid doesn’t end wars.

Can member states work together?

Looking at the migration policy proposed by the Visegrad states in Budapest, its possible to identify at least three areas where compromises should be possible:

1.) Provide additional means of applying for asylum from outside of the EU

2.) Continue to secure EU borders while supplying assistance for identification and registration of people seeking asylum at entry points to the EU

3.) Increase development aid, for instance, by getting closer to Official Development Assistance goals.

Interestingly, the viable parts of Visegrad’s migration platform all point to one thing: more money. There’s no doubt that providing more financial support up and down the asylum system can make a difference in how well the EU handles migration and asylum. But is it enough to replace the human aspect of accepting people into societies?

At the end of the day, no matter how much funding is offered and how many restrictions are applied, there are numerous people that are truly entitled to protection under laws agreed to in Europe for over half of a century, many of whom are already here. Increasing funds to prevent people from coming might be an area both sides can agree on, but it cannot possibly represent more than a partial solution to the current standoff over people already here and waiting for help.

 

Sources and Further Reading
Will Fear of Refugees Become the Status Quo in Czech Republic? MV
Relocation: Commission launches infringement procedures against the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland. Press Release, European Commission. June 2017.
Pending Case: Slovakia v. Council. Info-Curia, European Court of Justice.
Thirteenth Report on Resettlement and Relocation, European Commission, June 2017
MFA statement on the European Commission’s decision to launch infringement procedures against Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, June 2017
Interview with Andrej Babis.  Parlamentní listy, July 2017.
Viktor Orbán’s answers to questions from audience members after his speech at the Bálványos Summer Open University and Student Camp. (Speech Transcript) Hungarian Government, July 2016
Joint Statement by the Prime Ministers of the V4 Countries on Migration, Visegrad Group, July 2017
Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, UNHCR
States Parties to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967
Protocol, UNHCR
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, UN
Questions & Answers: the new European Border and Coast Guard Agency, Press Release, European Commission, 2016
Frontex to Get Budget Hike After Refugee Failures, EUobserver, 2015
EU unveils more measures to help Italy deal with Migrant Crises, Financial Times, July 2017
Council conclusions on annual report 2017 on EU development aid targets, European Commission, May 2017
Header image via Poland MFA on Flickr, http://bit.ly/2uumbVB (CC BY-NC 2.0)

 

Will Fear of Refugees Become the Status Quo in Czech Politics?

By Christian Jorgensen

Cover image: Photo: Nico Trinkhaus – Royal Way, Prague, Czech Republic

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.

Source:National Geographic

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? 

Further Reading and Sources
CVVM Poll (in Czech)
European Commission Asylum Statistics
European Commission Immigration/Emigration Statistics
Birth Rate Index (CIA)
UNHCR Statistics
Press Secretary Statement
1945 Statistics
1968 Statistics (second source)
Jiří Ovčáček Statements
Zeman Tsunami Statement
Super Holocaust Statement
British Home Office Security Ranking
Milan Chovanec Statement
Zeman Integration Statements
Michael Horacek Migration Platform
National Geographic Maps
Fake ISIS Attack in Prague

Cover image: Photo: Nico Trinkhaus – Royal Way, Prague, Czech Republic