Is the Czech Republic being fair to its immigrants and asylum seekers?


The Czech Republic’s entry into the EU’s Schengen border-free zone at the end of last year meant that a number of laws concerning immigration and asylum issues had to be harmonised with EU legislation. Yet, in the country, many of the issues commonly related to open borders remain relatively new.

Recently, the Czech Republic saw its first ever prosecution of a woman accused of accepting money for the sake of undertaking a fake marriage in order for the husband to gain Czech citizenship. The case comes as the result of the country’s recently amended Aliens Act, but this tough legislation has also caused controversy. Marie Jelínková works at the Prague Multicultural Centre:

“It's causing problems because the new amendment to the Aliens Act, which came into force in Dec. 2007, sort of expects all bi-national weddings to be fake, so the couples don't have the same access to permanent residence as they used to, they don't have access to some social benefits and so on, and there is a two year period for them to prove that the marriage is real.”

Pavel Pořízek is a lawyer at the Ombudsman’s office in the Czech city of Brno, which is charged with making sure that Czech legislation is both fair and proper. I asked him to explain the case:

"I would differentiate between two things, because that was the first prosecution of such a case as a result of the new legislation which came into effect last year. This law makes it an offence to procure assistance to a second party in order for them to gain illegal entry into the Czech Republic. So this was the first case that was successfully prosecuted. On a wider level, this problem isn’t just limited to fraudulent marriages, but also falsification of paternity – basically this problem is here now, and it is possible that there are hundreds of these cases. As far as the law is concerned, as long as the fraudulent aspect is proven, then this serves as a reason for the state to deny permanent residence.”

But critics contend that the new immigration legislation is discriminating against foreigners. Marie Jelínková again:

“The current system of incorporating foreigners is implicitly based on erecting barriers that put foreigners with few material resources or social competences and contacts at a distinct disadvantage.”

Martin Rozumek is the Head of OPU, or the Organisation for Aid to Refugees, which is a non-profit organization that helps refugees and asylum seekers in the Czech Republic, providing legal assistance as well as assistance with integration into Czech society. He too has some concerns about immigration legislation:

“I would say that Czech asylum and immigration legislation is very much harmonised with EU legislation - which is a must. It is our obligation to harmonise our laws with EU directives and regulations. And I would say that they are quite complicated. The Aliens Act is too complicated and very hard to understand, even for Czech lawyers, never mind foreigners. For foreigners, it is totally incomprehensible. And concerning the Asylum Act, I can just say that there is an amendment every year and the asylum legislation in the Czech Republic becomes much more strict than it was five or six years ago.”

But Pavel Pořízek remains adamant that the new rules work:

“The latest amendment which was debated in the media in the course of the last year – an amendment to the foreigner’s law which relates to the entry of the Czech Republic into the Schengen zone has slightly tightened the requirements for residence for family members, specifically for the spouses of Czech citizens. Before December 21 2007, when a foreigner married a Czech citizen, he or she could apply for permanent residence straight away. This has now changed, and these people must now wait two years before applying and also the marriage has to have lasted for at least a year. In fact, the European legislation from which this has come actually only allows permanent residence after five years. I think the legislation we have is a compromise, because as this law was being put together, it was realized that the problems of fraudulent weddings and fraudulent paternity applications are actually quite serious.”

Indeed, even critics of the new asylum legislation concede that it is the EU, not nation states that now have the greater say. Martin Rozumek again:

“It is very difficult to separate the Czech Republic from other EU states because the competence for this agenda was transferred from national states to EU bodies. So in fact, there are no big differences and we just follow the directives the EU is laying down. So it is very difficult to take one country and say that this regulation or this practice is bad. Many unpleasant things had to be adopted because it was our obligation under EU law and many positive regulations in our immigration and asylum laws are also a result of EU law harmonisation, so it is hard to say whether we are better or worse. I would say that we are a good EU member state, which means we are quite closed to asylum seekers, and we are opening more and more to legal immigrants.”

Photo: European Commission
Issues of immigration remain relatively new in the Czech Republic. Thus far, the new EU member states have avoided many of the issues related to the ghettoisation and exclusion of immigrant communities within their new countries. Of course, Eastern Europe has the so-called “Roma problem.” But how will the new EU members deal with open borders? Is there a real threat of excessive numbers of refugees and asylum seekers? Pavel Pořízek thinks not:

“There are two completely different categories, asylum seekers and foreigners. As far as asylum seekers are concerned, the numbers are falling. Last year, there were only 1800 people seeking asylum. In 2001, it was around 21,000. In fact, this is a universal trend in Europe. As far as foreigners entering the Czech Republic, the growth of immigration is, I would say, quite unbelievable. It is one of the fastest, if not the fastest relative growth of immigration in the world. Only last year, the numbers of foreigners grew by 70,000. At the end of last year there were 392,000 immigrants in this country, and I think that by now there are more than 400,000. And these numbers will not trail off or fall, they are expected to continue growing, so society as well as legislators are going to have to continue coming to terms with that.”

I asked Martin Rozumek another key question that Czechs have often had to deal with. Are they xenophobic?

“I wouldn’t say that Czech society is xenophobic. The number of immigrants in Czech society is very low compared to the old EU member states and it is not perceived as a problem. So I would say that no one really cares in society about immigrants and asylum issues. I would expect more interest on the side of the politicians but also more discussion on the side of the public. I think this will happen, but at the moment I wouldn’t say xenophobic, I would say indifferent.”

Whether that indifference is a good or a bad thing, and whether the Czech government will ensure the continued cultural, social and economic integration of immigrants in this country remains to be seen.