Integration expert says migration issue should not be reduced to security

Photo: Venca24, CC BY 4.0

The migrant crisis in Europe remains very much at the forefront of media attention. How many migrants can Europe take in, how much responsibility should the Czech Republic accept and is the country prepared to deal with the challenge of resettling hundreds of foreign migrants - are questions that have triggered heated debate in the media, political circles and, not least, pubs around the country. I spoke to the head of the Centre for Integration Vladislav Günter about some of the problems involved and began by asking whether the country was adequately prepared for the 1,500 foreign migrants it had agreed to take in.

Vladislav Günter, photo: Czech Television
“Well, if we are speaking about capacity and experience then for sure we are. The question is if we are also ready morally, because the atmosphere in society and sometimes the incompetent or not very fortunate reactions from our political elite raise doubts about our preparedness to take in foreign migrants.”

What kind of reactions are you talking about? Could you give us an example?

“Well, first of all, the present mood in society is caused by the fact that the migration issue is being limited to security – that it is presented as a security problem. We do not have relevant debates on what measures are good, which measures help integration and what negative experiences we – or our partners in Europe have. We speak about security, about building fences around migrant facilities, how the army and police must be ready …that is a side of the problem that is not yet here. We only have an increasing number of migrants transiting our country without documents, but it is not a security problem or a problem for our cultural identity or anything like that –so the problem is being blown out of proportion.”

“We speak about security, about building fences around migrant facilities, how the army and police must be ready …but that is a side of the problem that is not yet here.”

The Czech Republic will clearly have enough facilities –beds and buildings -to accommodate the 1,500 foreign migrants that the country has promised to take in, but is there a proper network to help them integrate, are there enough qualified employees who know how to work with them and so on?

“When you look at the social media or media in general you would think that Czech society is absolutely inexperienced and has no possibility of helping foreigners to integrate. But every day we meet so many people who are ready to help and who are experienced because in the past 25 years this country has been helping immigrants and we have good and bad experiences to learn from. We more or less know what to do and we have a network to help the integration of migrants in local communities. And moreover – and this is something that our political elite does not emphasize –more than five years ago the Czech Republic started to build a network of centres supporting the integration of foreigners. It is a state-funded and EU funded network of integration centres that coordinate the integration of foreigners in all regions of the Czech Republic. So we must be ready, because this system was not for free, we have experts there and these centres also coordinate local NGOs. I do not understand why this information is not aired by our government for example because it would help improve the public mood and reduce the panic about how we will integrate what is in effect a small number of people –just 1,500 –when we have integrated more than 400,000 people here without any significant problems.”

Photo: Venca24, CC BY 4.0
As you say we have taken in a great many migrants, Ukrainians for instance, but this group of migrants will be from a very different cultural background and there will obviously be a language barrier. What should the Interior Ministry be doing to help them integrate successfully? What is most important at this point?

“Well, firstly it is Czech language courses and we have developed many ways and methods during the past years how to teach people from a very different cultural and language background. But there are many other programmes, volunteer programmes, labour market, integration programmes -we have developed many, many programmes in the last few years mainly thanks to EU funds. So the instruments are there. The only question is if the government, and individual ministries, will be ready to use them and to react flexibly to the needs of people and local communities.”

Of all the EU member states, Czechs are the most concerned about a possible influx of migrants –why is that, what is behind those fears?

“Well, I am convinced that it is mainly due to the fact that we are so successful in our integration efforts that foreigners are not visible. And also many people simply do not have any face to face experience with foreigners from a very different cultural background, that they are afraid of something that they really do not know. And so this panic or fear is mainly caused by ignorance or lack of experience.”

“This panic or fear is mainly caused by ignorance or lack of experience.”

Do you also think it may be linked to what they read in the papers or see on television from countries such as Syria?

“Well yes, no doubt, no doubt. It is mainly caused by the media, but also by the inactivity of our political elite in the last few years when our politicians –our mainstream politicians – simply ignored the fact that they were fuelling negative moods in society. These moods are also caused by mistrust in the state itself and when people lack trust in the functioning of the state they may be afraid that the state will not be able to fix this as well.”

That it will not be able to handle the influx of migrants?

“Yes, exactly, this must be one of the reasons. One part of the problem is our media and another part is the failure of our political elite –especially mainstream parties which left the topic to be handled by xenophobic small parties.”

When Czechs fear an influx of migrants do they differentiate between refugees whose life is in danger and economic migrants or do they just throw them in one bag and are against all migrants?

Migrant facility in Bělá pod Bezdězem, photo: Czech Television
“I am afraid there is a big mess in “who is who” and people and even the media and politicians often do not differentiate between refugees and economic migrants. They simply mix it all up together with the problem of Muslims and Christians and talk about who would potentially be able to integrate better. They do not seem to realize that in the case of refugees we cannot refuse them just because of their faith. They are refugees and we must assess the reasons –the danger - that led them to escape from their country –not what their faith is.”

Few of the illegal migrants detained on Czech territory ask for asylum in the Czech Republic. Why is that? Is it difficult to get asylum here, is the Czech Republic not an attractive destination or do they head for places with bigger communities of their own?

“For sure, people know which countries are more friendly to asylum seekers and the Czech Republic is well-known for being very careful in recognizing refugees, so that is one reason, another is that they have relatives, their own countrymen, in different countries so they want to go there and have a more secure position at the start of their new life.”

Is the Czech welfare system contributing to this as well? Do they feel that their lives here would not be what they are hoping for?

“I am not sure about that. I really do not believe that people decide on the basis of what welfare system is better. They take into account more criteria. It is not just the welfare system but also the labour market and community life – if there will be someone there from their own community to help them if they are jobless and so on. So the welfare argument –again –in my opinion-only limits a reasonable debate on this topic.”

How difficult is it to get asylum in the Czech Republic. What are the conditions?

Photo: Czech Television
“Well, the criteria are described in our law on asylum which should correspond with the Geneva Convention but the reality is of course always more complex. It really is not easy to get asylum in the Czech Republic and it has never been easy. I can give you an example – fifteen years ago the rate of successful Afghani applications for asylum in Western Europe was somewhere between 20 and 40 percent. At the same time in the Czech Republic it was only six percent while the success rate of all asylum applicants at the time was under one percent. The Czech Republic was continually criticized for this by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. So that shows how difficult it is.”