Czech president uses Christmas message to warn of migrant "invasion"

Miloš Zeman, photo: CTK

Czech president Miloš Zeman has used his annual Christmas message to reiterate his strong opposition to Europe’s migration policies. Echoing sentiments previously expressed during the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution on November 17, the Czech president warned of a Trojan horse-like organised invasion of Europe, and accused migrants of running after welfare benefits instead of fighting against Islamic State.

Miloš Zeman,  photo: CTK
It was Miloš Zeman’s third Christmas message since becoming president in 2013. Delivered on December 26th from the presidential retreat at Lány, the roughly 14 minute-long message saw Mr. Zeman covering a range of topics mainly focused on domestic politics – he praised the country’s economic growth and even declared an end to the Czech Republic’s “bad mood”, a term coined by former president Václav Havel describing the evaporation of post-communist-era euphoria among citizens.

But the president’s most pointed and controversial comments were delivered on the subject of the European migrant crisis:

“I am profoundly convinced that we are facing an organised invasion, and not a spontaneous movement of refugees. Those who defend the immigrants talk of compassion and solidarity. But compassion is possible for the old, infirm, and primarily for children. But a large majority of illegal migrants are young, healthy men without families. I am asking: why don’t these men take up arms and battle for the freedom of their country and against Islamic State?”

Photo: Dragan Tatic,  CC BY 2.0
Such a stance has proven popular with a large segment of the Czech population wary of an influx of migrants from the Middle East and Africa. Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka responded by stating that there was nothing surprising about the president’s latest words on the issue, adding that Zeman was guilty of prejudice and oversimplification. Deputy PM Andrej Babiš released a statement supporting the president’s views on migration and also thanking Zeman for expressing support for the government’s economic policies. Meanwhile, opposition TOP 09 party leader Miroslav Kalousek accused Zeman of commenting on matters which were the purview of the government and not the president.

The Czech president’s statement was reported by several global news outlets. Mark Micallef, executive editor of NGO Migrant Report, told Al-Jazeera that Miloš Zeman’s statement was an unhelpful portrayal of migrants as cowards, when in fact many were making courageous life-saving decisions.

I asked political commentator Jiří Pehe for his take on the president’s strong words directed against migrants:

Jiří Pehe,  photo: Šárka Ševčíková
“I think the president’s statements were clearly aimed at that part of Czech society – which is a majority right now according to opinion polls – that is against accepting refugees, and where the anti-immigration sentiments are quite strong… the government’s position is certainly more moderate than President Zeman’s. Yes, it is certainly not too friendly towards migrants, and certainly the Czech Republic has not been among the most welcoming regarding refugees are concerned. But at the same time, Prime Minister Sobotka has tried to strike a balance in his statements, saying on the one hand we cannot be open to all refugees, but at the same time we have to show a human face so to speak. Whereas Zeman has taken a very uncompromising attitude towards any refugees basically.”