Czechs test a new approach to migration management - will it combat aging population?

Photo: European Commission

Since January 2003, authorities have been running a programme to attract skilled foreign workers to the Czech Republic as the country's population ages and Czechs go abroad to work. The scheme is still in the trial stages, open to applicants from just three countries - Bulgaria, Croatia, and Kazakhstan. Under the programme, potential immigrants are given fast-track access to residence permits, allowing them to settle permanently in this country after just two and a half years - instead of the usual ten.

Photo: European Commission
It is the first measure the Czech Republic has taken to try to steer its immigration policy, and it is the first country in post-communist Europe that has tried to do so. Vera Ivanovicova is one of the main organizers of what is called the "Pilot Project of the active selection of qualified workers". I asked her why the Czech Republic was in need of recruiting skilled new citizens.

"The reasons for the project are quite simple. First of all the Czech Republic has a very low fertility rate at 1.17 per woman, which is one of the lowest in all of Europe. Then there is the prolongation of life. With our population getting older it is becoming increasingly difficult for our social system to pay pensions and so on. At present the system is still functioning, but if we don't do anything about it we may need to increase the pension age. And finally the specialists from our Ministry have calculated that in the year 2030 there will be a lack of more than 420, 000 workers on our labour market. So we have to start doing something in this direction to fulfil it."

The project offers its applicants permanent residency after two and a half years as opposed to the ten in current Czech legislation. But the project itself cannot offer high salaries to its applicants, guarantee a job or offer a dense social net. So how does this project hope to attract professional workers?

"We are counting on a particular group of people for whom in some way the Czech Republic is attractive. If there are too many bureaucratic complications they really will not come to us. So by promising them a shortened term towards a permanent residency they will also be ensured the same rights as a Czech citizen with exception to voting rights and army service."

A successful participant in the project is Mladin Barbalic, a 40-year-old civil engineer from Croatia who came to Prague in 1994. Mr. Barbalic has had work experience in the West but chose the Czech Republic as his home instead. I met up with him and his Czech girlfriend one evening to ask about the lifestyle adjustments he had to make to fully integrate into the Czech Republic.

"When I'm in Prague I'm drinking beer and I'm very much enjoying Czech lifestyle because it is actually not so different from my original lifestyle. I almost don't feel like I am in another country and felt more alien in Switzerland where I had double the salary. Czechs and Croats have similar habits and similar use of free time."

From a Czech diplomatic perspective the target countries of Bulgaria, Croatia and Kazakhstan were a most suitable beginning. The three countries have similar characteristics and for such an experiment to introduce the project to all countries would be too financially demanding. Milada Horakova works for the Research Institute for Labour and Social Affairs and recognizes the urgency in which the Czech Republic needs migrants to supplement its rapidly declining population. She doesn't see the project as being much of a solution. In the second round of the Pilot Project's selection process in January of this year, the project had admitted a further -36 from Bulgaria, 2 from Kazakhstan, and 1 from Croatia, a total of 114 were admitted by the end of 2003, not a figure satisfactory for the analyst.

"It is a good step but I ask why use this Pilot Project? One significant pro is that migration will be safer for our country because the government selects the people. But the figures are very low. The question is will we be able to take in an effective amount of people via this system because from my point of view it is too expensive. Why search for people according to qualifications when they should be able to search for themselves on the job market and then don't make barriers for their settlement. It's risky to attract people by giving them a permanent settlement. They leave their country forever. They leave housing, family and friends and they come here and all we can offer them is a labour market. Also for people with professional qualifications there is no guarantee that they will find a qualified and well-paid job. Maybe qualified but not very well paid."

However, many of these migrants had already taken the initiative to live and work in the Czech Republic, not to mention went to the trouble of obtaining a legal work visa that needs to be renewed on a yearly basis. Such diligence proves a valued contribution to Czech society for the long term and not just in transition to a country in the West.

But scientists, researchers, doctors and teachers who are largely employed by the state in this country are paid quite low wages. The discrepancy remains great between wages in the state sector and the private sector. Something absolutely indispensable in the project is an entrance filter, saying that the applicant must have a work permit as well as a certain degree of qualification. Such a filter is based on a point system modelled from Quebec, Canada immigration policy. The submission and processing of the application is quite demanding administratively for the Czech state. The main criteria in the point system is age, education, work experience, family situation, and knowledge of languages, most importantly Czech. But Mrs Horakova has philosophical difficulties with the system, questioning whether it is ultimately worthwhile.

"They want to attract people who will be profitable for society and from a philosophical point of view I ask myself who can decide who is more profitable for society: people with a high education or manual workers who are needed on the labour market? Only God can say who is a more valuable person."

On the other hand some consider the point system as being an objective solution to such a selection process but it is certainly not without faults. I asked Mrs. Ivanovicova what she finds most interesting about her involvement with the Pilot Project.

"I think what is most interesting about the project is that it is completely new. Right now we are testing the system. We can of course improve it, keeping in mind the long-term Czech migration policy. From a professional point of view it's quite a big challenge and I myself lived abroad quite a long time- 3 and a half years in Bulgaria, one and a half years in Kosovo, and quite a long time in Russia and Germany- and I know that especially from these Eastern countries people are not leaving their home just for fun, they are in some way pressed to do it. In some cases it's for family reasons, in some cases war and sometimes it may just be purely for economic reasons. But it is always a difficult decision to leave one's homeland and to go to another country without knowing anybody and starting everything from the very beginning. I think these people are quite brave trying to do something for themselves and for their families."