Czech NGOs call for better approach to migrants
A consortium of 18 Czech non-governmental organizations working with migrants last week issued a document in which it outlines the basic principles the country should adhere to in dealing with immigrants. The principles relate to the country’s asylum policy, social rights, education, work and other spheres. I spoke to the head of the Organisation for Aid to Refugees Martin Rozumek about their concerns and what triggered the joint initiative.
I read the document and I have to say that it is fairly general –can you be more specific now and tell me what it is that you are criticising and what needs changing.
“The main problem from my point of view –and that of the Organization for Aid to Refugees – is the situation of refugees in the Czech Republic, the detention of migrants and the low quality of asylum decisions. For us the main problem is how the Czech Republic treats asylum seekers who are on their way to other countries very often to join their family members in other EU member states and this policy of detention and deterrence is something that must be criticized not only by us but by the whole consortium.”
So you are saying that the Czech Republic is unfriendly towards migrants?
“Yes, for sure. We think that the Czech government somehow pursues a policy of discrimination and exploitation of migrants in many ways and we believe that the government must fundamentally change the basic principles of integration and migration policy in the Czech Republic.”
Last week Justice Minister Robert Pelikan said conditions in detention centres for migrants must improve –he called them “semi-prisons”. What needs to be changed? You visit them often…
Czech Interior Minister Milan Chovanec maintains that the country is acting in line with Czech laws and adhering to the rules governing Schengen –what do you say to those arguments?
“My opinion is that Mr. Chovanec does not know the basic principles of the Czech Constitution and that is that the country’s international obligations and European legislation must be applied before the national legislation. So it is true that according to Czech law one could argue that the policy of the Interior Ministry is within the frame of the Czech national legislation, but it is clear that the policy does not respect the Czech Republic’s international obligations and human rights treaties.”
You say in the document that migrants are only viewed as a security threat – would you elaborate on that?
What do you think is behind the trend of keeping a very tight asylum law?
“I think it is a way of thinking based on the assumption that every foreigner is a threat and it seems that the interior ministry and police believe that they are there to defend the country from immigrants and foreigners. Unfortunately this affects students, it affects academicians, workers, businessmen, and we think it is some kind of paranoia on the part of the Interior Ministry and what is sad is that other ministries are not very active to change this attitude. So, as I said, the Czech asylum and migration policy is constructed by the interior ministry, the police and the secret services and then of course the final result of such a policy is always restrictive and always full of obstacles for asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants in the Czech Republic.”
A growing number of ordinary people are now offering to help migrants, but the vast majority of Czechs are still opposed to quotas and the idea of more migrants coming. Why is that do you think?
The reason I asked is that I wanted to know whether you think the public is influenced by politicians and the media or whether the government is taking a populist line here because of public opinion…
“Sure, politicians are afraid of being more open on the issues of migration and asylum. They have in mind the results of polls – according to Eurobarometer 80 percent of Czechs are against refugees and according to another poll it is 70 percent – and politicians are very well aware of these numbers and they are afraid to say something different. So when you talk to them in private many of them accept that it is not so easy to say that immigrants and refugees are a threat to our country, but they are afraid that if they say this openly, publicly they would pay a price for it. But we see that even among government politicians, in the lower house and the Senate there are more and more politicians who have the courage to voice a different opinion. Mr. Pelikan, the justice minister is one, and Mr. Dienstbier, the minister for human rights, is another. And we think there will be more politicians who will openly say what they really think and will not be afraid that their party will lose points on that issue. ”
You are obviously not happy with the government’s asylum policy –are communication channels between you -or NGOs working with migrants- and the government open, or is there a communication problem?
What kind of impact are you hoping this manifesto will have?
“We hope it will be a good basis for a debate in Parliament with open-minded MPs and senators and our goal is to achieve that the migration issue is not considered only from the security angle. So we are trying to “sell” this manifesto to the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, we also sent it to foreign embassies and the Open Society Fund in the hope that they too will discuss the issue with the government and also with the media, because we think that as soon as public opinion is more welcoming politicians will probably speak in a different language about asylum seekers and migrants. ”