Immigration changing Czech society

Immigrant girls from former Caucasus Soviet Republics - someone Czechs are getting used to, photo: Vít Pohanka

The Czech society has traditionally been quite homogenous. Of course, there have always been regional differences in dialect, culture, folk music. But people understand each other no matter which part of the country they come from, consider themselves to be of one nationality. And that has started changing.

Pavla Novotná,  photo: Asya Chekhanova,  Czech Radio - Radio Prague
Pavla Novotná is director of the asylum and migration policy department at the Ministry of Interior:

“The Czech Republic has become a standard destination country for legal immigration during the past twenty years, or so. It is now normal that we process dozens of thousands of legal applications for entry and long-term stay of foreign nationals.”

The influx of foreigners has nothing to do with the recent refugee crisis. The Czech economy is doing very well, even booming in some places, and this brings unexpected problems and difficulties. The new industrial zone in Kvasiny, Eastern Bohemia, could serve as a case in point.

The car maker Škoda Volkswagen proudly presented its new production complex a few years ago. And rightly so, it is super-modern and created thousands of job opportunities not just for the company itself but its contractors, too. In fact, the new work opportunities created were so plentiful that there were not enough Czechs to fill them, recruitment started in Poland, Slovakia, and Ukraine. Jan Hostinský is the mayor of the neighboring town of Solnice:

Photo: Milan Mottl,  Pixabay / CC0
“We were all surprised by the scope of the success. And I believe it was not just Škoda that was surprised, but also the regional authorities, and the ministries of industry and the interior in Prague. We ourselves were probably surprised the most. Today, we have some 12 thousand workers in the industrial zone which is about 5 kilometers long. So the growth in employee numbers was several times larger and faster than anyone expected. If you have a mixed residential and industrial area with infrastructure built for, say, five thousand people and all of a sudden there are about four thousand more inhabitants, then there will inevitably be problems.

As foreign workers started arriving, they needed accommodation, health, recreation and other services that were limited or non-existent. When you have a lot of mainly young men with nothing to do in the evening but hang around with money to spend, it may lead to trouble. Mayor Hostinský again:

Jan Hostinský,  photo: Archive of Jan Hostinský
“We started communicating first of all about safety and the security situation. That’s what local people were most concerned about. I really have to appreciate how the Interior Ministry and the Czech state police approached the problem. I suppose they have a good and efficient command structure that makes it easy to react if there is a sudden change in population numbers and a sharp increase in heavy traffic in a certain area. They very quickly increased the number of policemen in the streets and on the roads and opened a new police station in what must have been a record time. Thanks to that, we had no increase in serious crime. I believe that due to their quick reaction the security situation is now very good.”

Mayor Hostinský says that contrary to rumor, the reaction of both the central and local authorities was mostly quick and effective:

“The Ministry of Interior opened a new immigration police station and at the same time a special Coordination Center which helps foreign workers. It communicates on a regular basis with employers, the local authorities but, primarily with the immigrant workers and their representatives. It provides them with information and assistance. It generates interesting new approaches to cooperation. For example, if there is a new group of foreign workers who come looking for employment, the Coordination Center is their first stop. They get information about all the legal requirements and paperwork, possibilities for recreation and how to spend their free time, what medical and accommodation facilities are available, what are the local requirements for public order.”

Immigrant girls from former Caucasus Soviet Republics - someone Czechs are getting used to,  photo: Vít Pohanka
More and more foreigners either come with their children or have them, once in the country. Obviously, these children need to attend school. Hana Vítová is the principal of the Na Smetance Elementary School in Prague, Vinohrady:

“Since our school is right in the center of Prague, about twenty percent of our pupils are from foreign families. They come from practically all continents of the world. This year, for example, we have three new children from India who did not speak any Czech when they came. Then we have some children from Indonesia. But most of the children come from the countries of the former Soviet Union – Russia, Ukraine, Belorussia, Kazakhstan etc. “

Teaching is hard work. Having to teach children who do not speak the language makes it even more difficult. But Hana Vítová sees it more as a positive challenge rather than an insurmountable obstacle:

Immigrant children in Czech schools exhibit their imagination and traditional folklore themes,  photo: Vít Pohanka
“We chose this job so in a way it is our duty to help these kids. Our society is changing, there is no doubt about it, especially here in Prague. It is becoming multicultural. If a teacher wants to work here he or she simply has to adapt and get used to the fact that there will be 3 or 4 kids in the class who do not have Czech as their native language. What makes it easier; the foreign children do not come in a sudden wave. Their number grows gradually; and they usually start speaking Czech more and more proficiently as time goes by. And there is also a kind of positive even inspirational atmosphere, too. Quite often, you can hear three different languages in one classroom during the breaks. Because the children can be talking Czech, English, and Russian.”

This is an eloquent explanation as to why Czechs should accept the fact that they now live in a less homogenous society and draw inspiration rather than frustration from it.