Czech government agrees to take in Syrian refugee children for medical treatment

Beit Sahm, Syria, January 14, 2015, photo: CTK

The Czech government has agreed to take in around 70 refugees of the Syrian conflict, currently situated in Jordan. The decision, which was unanimously approved by the cabinet on Wednesday, has met with mixed reactions from opposition politicians – some say the country should do far more to help the victims of Syria’s civil war; others fear the economic and cultural burdens of taking in people from such a dangerous part of the world.

Beit Sahm, Syria, January 14, 2015, photo: CTK
The majority of the 70 Christian refugees to be accepted into the Czech Republic are to be children, brought in for hospital treatment of the kind which cannot be administered inside the refugee camps outside Syria’s borders. The children will either be gravely ill or have sustained serious injuries as a result of the Syrian conflict. They will be accompanied by a small number of guardians – 15 families form part of the 70 – and be treated in hospitals in Prague before being resettled by the Ministry of the Interior, likely first in a secure refugee centre in the north-eastern Czech town of Kostelec nad Orlicí.

The move comes in response to a request by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. An estimated 9 million Syrians have fled the country since 2011 – around 3 million of whom reside in neighbouring countries such as Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, often in crowded refugee camps. Hitherto, the Czech Republic’s efforts with regards to assisting this group has centred on providing aid to camps such as Zaatari in Jordan, spending CZK 120 million over the last three years to this end. The government wants to spend another 100 million on this effort this year.

Milan Chovanec, photo: Filip Jandourek
But the Czech Republic has been – and remains – wary of accepting large numbers of refugees. Germany, for example has taken in around 20,000 people; Austria has offered to accept around 1,000. Overall, Western European countries have committed to taking in 100,000 refugees from Syria. The Czech government has said that the country could not cope with allowing in anything close to such numbers. But the Ministry of the Interior has committed to setting up a working group to help find ideal candidates for re-settlement in the Czech Republic. All such future refugees would be subject to a thorough security check by the country’s intelligence service BIS. Milan Chovanec, Social Democrat interior minister, described the process:

“Our secret services are co-operating with similar services in host countries. That is the first layer of information which we gain. We also have our representatives in such countries. Then there is the BIS service. With all these available sources we can conduct thorough background checks, primarily of the adult family members of the children. And with this we hope to eliminate any security risks.”

What this move does not represent, is a new policy by the government. Rather, it remains an individual act of humanitarian aid in response to a request by the United Nations. In response to the government decision, TOP 09 party chair Karel Schwarzenberg issued a statement saying the country should be less selfish in terms of assisting those suffering in appalling conditions in refugee camps. On the other side of the coin, ODS chair Petr Fiala responded by saying that while bringing in refugees for treatment was acceptable, enabling such people to then remain in the country should be an exception rather than a rule.”

Photo: CTK
Yet, despite fears of how such refugees could assimilate in the Czech Republic, Marian Jurečka, Christian Democrat agriculture minister, noted a decidedly hospitable response from many Czechs:

“We have been receiving emails in recent days in which people have offered to take families in to live with them, and have even offered them long-term residence in their properties. Naturally, so long as this appears to be a viable path, we will set about asking these volunteers to directly contact the Ministry of the Interior.”