Canada lifts visas for Czechs

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As of Thursday November 1st Czech citizens traveling to Canada for a period of up to three months will no longer need entry visas. The move ends a ten-year long drive on the part of Czech diplomats to ease travel for Czechs to this part of the world.

When Canada first lifted visa requirements for Czech citizens shortly after the fall of communism, Czechs - reveling in their new found freedom - took the move for granted. However the easing of restrictions was short-lived. In reaction to a flood of asylum seekers from the Czech Republic, mainly Romanies, Ottawa re-introduced visas in 1997 on the grounds that Czechs were abusing the Canadian welfare system. Prague retaliated, reintroducing visas for Canadians in 2001 but abolished them again after the Czech Republic's entry to the EU in 2004. Since then Prague has received EU support in pushing for a visa-free regime both with Canada and the United States. On Wednesday Canada finally announced it was abolishing visa requirements for the Czech Republic and Latvia. The Canadian ambassador to Prague Michael Calcott explains the steps that led up to the decision:

"Canada has undertaken an ongoing review of the visa requirements for all of the Central European states. In fact we do it for all countries. Last fall we provided a specific list of criteria to the Czech Republic and other central European countries and said 'If you can meet these criteria and various thresholds associated with them we will consider lifting the visa requirement'. After a recent review for both the Czech Republic and Latvia it was determined that both of those countries met the criteria that we had established."

That means that as long as the country adheres to them, the visa-free regime stays in place?

Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, photo: CTK
"Yes, exactly. We will obviously continue to monitor the situation -as we do all people arriving in Canada. We will monitor any abuses of the system but basically our criteria, as far as refugee claimants goes, is that if a country's nationals make up more than two percent of the overall refugee claims made in Canada we would then look to re-imposing the visas. I think Czech citizens are far, far away from that number."

Meanwhile, speaking at a press conference in Prague on Wednesday Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg said this was excellent news.

"I am very happy that a big part of North America has eased travel restrictions for Czechs. I would like to thank Canada for making this decision and I hope that talks with the United States on visa free travel will likewise soon bring results."

However the minister warned Czechs not to take visa-free travel for granted, stressing that the visa regime could be revised at any point. The lifting of short-term visas is conditioned by the number of Czech applicants not exceeding 2 percent of all asylum applications filed in Canada and for the number of Czechs who violate the conditions of their short-term stay - for instance by working illegally - to remain under 3 percent.