Migrant crisis fuelling negative sentiments towards foreigners and the EU

Migrants in Bělá pod Bezdězem, photo: Radek Duchoň

The migrant crisis is making Czechs increasingly wary of foreigners. According to a recent poll conducted by the STEM agency, the number of people who think an ethnic group or minority should have the right to live in the Czech Republic according to its own traditions has dropped by almost a half to 25 percent in the past two years. Only 25 percent of respondents now say requests for Czech citizenship should be granted without regard to nationality or ethnicity. And three quarters of Czechs consider foreigners to be a security threat. For this week’s Panorama I spoke to the head of the STEM polling agency, sociologist Jan Hartl, about how the crisis has changed attitudes to foreigners and even to the country’s next door neighbours.

Jan Hartl,  photo: Noemi Holeková
“I think that the Czech public was caught by surprise that the flow of immigrants came to Europe from an unexpected side and it was perceived as a really strong threat. People fear mainly the Islamic religion and terrorism which would come with the immigrants. It is a well-known fact that there are almost no refugees in the Czech Republic and it was politicians and the media who exaggerated the inflow of immigrants, there was not much information but a lot of emotions surrounding the issue and it seems that some politicians are skillfully using the fear of the population from the unknown and connecting it with the inflow of immigrants, which as I said, is not happening here. And consequently, the attitude to all immigrants in general has worsened and now more than 70 percent of people think that all foreigners living in the Czech Republic present an enormous security threat to the country.”

The incident that we have just had with the relocation program for Christian families from Iraq (49 of them tried to move to Germany after getting asylum in the Czech Republic) –is that creating a feeling among the public that refugees are ungrateful that they do not deserve help and that they are in fact economic migrants?

“I think that is one interpretation and it is the explanation we could hear in the media. I believe that if our public received more information about the fact that the selection of these immigrants was not without mistakes it would diminish the perception that they are ungrateful. This case shows that the situation is more complicated and people need to understand that this phenomenon is very structured, very differentiated, that there are many groups with different motives, but the prevailing mood was to throw them all into one bag. If we look at public opinion surveys we can observe that within the space of six months public opinion on the matter changed dramatically. And in my opinion it will now take years to get the situation back to where it was two or three years ago.”

“Seventy percent of people think that foreigners living in the Czech Republic present a security threat to the country.”

Has this crisis changed Czechs’ perception of the European Union?

“Yes, I would say that this is the most serious -and I would not hesitate to say - the most dramatic shift we have observed in our public opinion surveys. The fear of foreigners and immigrants from the Middle East, and the fear of Islamic terrorists, was connected in people’s minds with the inefficiency of the European Union in coping with the problem. It was misused by part of the media, some of the politicians and the debate on social networks was such that the EU was making things worse and worse, that with EU policy we can expect a major threat to our civilization and we can observe in our data that as people grew more and more afraid of foreigners they grew less and less in favour of the European Union. A hypothetical question we asked –whether people would vote for EU membership under the present circumstances, if a referendum were held on the issue today - revealed EU membership would not be the outcome of such a vote. It would not even be 40 percent of people who would say YES.”

So trust in EU institutions has dropped dramatically?

“That is exactly so and also the most radical rejection of migrants is linked to criticism of the activity of Germany and in particular Chancellor Angela Merkel. And it seems that the relationship of the Czech Republic to Germany – a crucial EU neighbor – may be endangered for the future. It means that there is a very important and serious agenda for Czech politicians to cope with in the next two or three years. The situation at the moment is quite bad and it can not only be reflected in future solutions towards immigrants but it can put the Czech Republic on a crossroad regarding whether the country will head to the West or to the East – as it is being interpreted by many political observers.”

Migrants in Bělá pod Bezdězem,  photo: Radek Duchoň
You say that the migrant crisis has soured relations with Germany. Do you have a survey indicating this?

“Yes, it is interesting that Angel Merkel was at one time the most popular of all the foreign politicians in Czech public opinion and recently her popularity here dropped very dramatically as an outcome of her being accused of accelerating the immigration threat.”

But is it not a fact – and I think many West European countries now point to the same thing - that Europe was taken aback, was taken unprepared by this crisis –and in many ways failed?

“Yes, but we should keep in mind that the post-communist central and East European countries want to shake of the residuals of the communist regime. So if in Western Europe the migrant problem is serious in our country it is even more serious, because we have to cope not only with the outcome of the migrant crisis but with the legacy of communism and the propaganda of Russia which wants to sow discord in Europe and undermine the integrity of the European Union. I am afraid that the situation is really serious in our country these days.”

What is at stake in this crisis? What are the most serious consequences that you see – potentially?

“The migrant crisis can put the Czech Republic on a crossroad regarding whether the country will head to the West or to the East.”

“The most important thing is not the migration crisis in itself. The most important thing is that the migration crisis forms a background on which the orientation of our country is being questioned and many people including our president try to suggest that we might try to perhaps look for some third way which would involve being integrated in the EU but at the same time having very good relations with Russia and China, in other words, trying to find a way “in-between” and I think this is very dangerous.”