Have 240,000 Czechs been left out from statistics?

It's the end of the year and many people are taking the opportunity to look back over 2005, including demographers, who have found a surprising discrepancy in data regarding the size of the Czech population. Around 100,000 babies have been born in the Czech Republic this year. The country has accepted 28,000 immigrants, and overall the population increased by almost 26,000 people. But just how many inhabitants does the Czech Republic have?

According to data supplied by the Czech Statistics Office, in September 2005 the Czech Republic had 10,246,552 citizens. The office uses figures from the 2001 national census and updates them every year. The Interior Ministry, which uses data from local authorities, reports 240,000 more.

A quarter of a million people - that's the population of two medium-sized cities in the Czech Republic. Have these people been left out from the statistics or have they been counted twice? And can the number of inhabitants of a country ever be counted? Josef Skrabal from the Czech Statistics Office says it is virtually impossible to calculate it to the last person.

"I don't want to say who is closer to the truth. Some degree of error is probably on our side. That's because some people could have been missed out during the last census, or some local authorities have not reported to us the actual situation. But we suppose there is a degree of error in the civil registration figures, too, because they often contain people who've died or have lived abroad for many years. The truth is probably somewhere in between."

Especially in towns and cities it is difficult to keep track of the population's movement. But those figures make a difference because towns receive money from the state budget according to the size of their population.

Some towns claim they have lost millions because of inaccurate data. For example, the town of Jihlava had calculated its loss at 25 million crowns (around 1 million dollars) and decided to act. The authorities promised to pay 3,000 crowns (125 dollars) to everyone who registers for permanent residence in the town by the end of the year. The sum they had put aside for it was gone within days.

The town of Kolin promised 1,000 crowns to each newly registered resident. Thanks to that the population of Kolin has exceeded 30,000, which will bring another 10 million crowns to the town's coffers.

"If those newly registered people really live in the towns it is justified. But if somebody just wants to make a bit of money and registers only formally, the result will be that some towns will artificially increase their population but others will lose out in terms of money."

The towns that feel cheated because of inaccurate figures are very vocal in their complaints. But owing to the same errors, other towns have more residents on paper than there are people living in them. But those, Josef Skrabal says, happily keep quiet.