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Which Refugees are ‘Threatening’ the Czechs?

When a government minister says accepting 1,853 migrants could destroy his country, it’s Europe’s hard-won freedoms that are really under attack. by Katerina Safarikova 18 June 2015

The European Commission’s proposed quota system to resettle tens of thousands of migrants across EU member states to “share the burden” more equitably – though not the best formulated idea to come from Brussels – is still to be lauded.


The huge influx of asylum seekers has hit countries such as Italy, with its long Mediterranean coastline, especially hard. Under current EU rules, asylum claims must be processed in the first EU country the migrant enters. Italy, the primary landing point for migrants heading for Europe by boat, has registered some 60,000 migrant landings this year alone and is demanding help, and threatening to issue temporary visas to new arrivals so they can travel further within the EU if that help does not soon arrive.


But while in the Czech Republic, a landlocked country, the belief that the EU member states should share responsibility for resettling these people is gaining ground, some of the country’s former and current ministers, who have supported the principle, are now backing away from it.


The Czech government has from the start opposed the commission’s plan to resettle refugees (mainly from the Middle East and northern Africa) and, along with fellow Visegrad Four (V4) members Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary, stresses three points to justify its stance: that the quota undermines sovereignty, it is impractical, and that the refugees (read “Muslims”) will not integrate well into society.


V4 leaders are due to meet in Bratislava on 19 June to coordinate their positions on migration ahead of the European Council’s meeting at the end of June. On the sovereignty front, the V4 countries argue that the proposed quota system would undermine the right of EU member states to decide which people they let reside within their national borders.


On the practical side of things, they argue that the scheme will fail because illegal migrants will roam freely within the Schengen area, rules or no rules. It is a valid point. While the commissioners want to prevent “asylum shopping” by introducing restrictive measures that the migrants would have to agree to, dictating where people must remain in order to keep their legal status within the Schengen area is problematic.


Finally, most of the people whom the commission wants to resettle are from Muslim countries, and there is growing fear among people in the V4 – which is being stoked by their political elites – that the quota will bring an influx of radical Islamists. Just last week in the Czech Republic, a group that had launched a petition against accepting Muslim refugees set up a “Bloc Against Islam.”


There is also a striking contrast between the cherished freedom to move freely within the Schengen area and the reaction to the commission’s proposed quotas. While in the Czech Republic no agency has done a representative poll on the issue, informal surveys in the media show roughly two in three would agree to reintroducing border controls in order to stop immigration.


The outcome would of course be different if the question were put as “Would you limit your own right to freedom of movement in Europe in order to stop immigration?” Still, the Czechs’ eagerness – in online debates and polls at least – to abandon one of the most valuable benefits of EU membership is stunning.


Even a former prime minister, Petr Necas – a firm supporter of a borderless Europe when he led the center-right Civic Democratic Party – said in a recent interview he agreed the Schengen zone should be abolished to stem the flow of migrants, calling the idea of an open Europe “premature.”


To return to the fear of Muslims, Czech Interior Minister Milan Chovanec said that agreeing to the proposed quota (1,853 immigrants in a country with a population of 10 million) could lead to the “collapse of our society.”


Whether he meant perhaps to suggest that most of those who would be settled in the Czech Republic would be radical Islamists or that the Czechs will be unable to cope with more women in headscarves on the streets and will start rioting, his statement was irresponsible at best.


At about the same time, another Interior Ministry expert, though also critical of the quota plan, observed that many hundreds of Russians had settled in the Czech Republic in recent years and asked, “Why should refugees from Syria threaten us but not newcomers from Putin’s Russia?”


To close on a positive note, this week the interior ministers of the V4-plus-Slovenia, under Czech leadership, came up with a notion that is both sensible and responsible. They agreed to propose to their EU counterparts to activate special aid for internally displaced people in Ukraine so as to prevent yet another migrant crisis. It’s about time.

Katerina Safarikova
 is a journalist for Czech daily 
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