Migration expert: Czechia will have to rethink its integration policy
In just six weeks, more than eleven million Ukrainians have fled their homes because of the Russian invasion. Over four million have left Ukraine, another seven million people are thought to be displaced inside the country. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees it is the fastest growing refugee crisis since World War II. Martina Kroa spoke to migration expert and social geographer Tereza Freidingerová, about various aspects of the crisis and begun by asking her how this refugee exodus compares to previous migration crises.
“It’s something very new for this country. We have never experienced anything like it in our history. In the 40s and 50s, there were some refugee waves, but that was very exceptional, it was due to the World War II. And since then, the world has experienced two very large refugee crises. First was the Indo-Chinese refugee crisis from Vietnam, and the second one was the Syrian refugee crisis. But we didn’t actually experience that crisis. So this is really new for us.
“Yes, we hosted or accepted thousands of refugees in the past. In the beginning of the 90s there were former Yugoslavs, and people from Romania. Around the year 2000 we accepted Chechens. But never in such large numbers.”
And looking at it from the European perspective?
“The main difference is that the refugee crisis was triggered very suddenly. Yes, we had some indications that something like that might happen, but it was very sudden. If I were to compare it with the crisis in 2015, that was a consequence of events that took place over many years. It was because of the Arab Spring, and the conflict in Syria. Those people were accumulated in Turkey, and other first asylum countries. And then they just set on their way. That crisis was predictable. Migration scientists pointed to the situation in Turkey for years before the people set in motion. This crisis is really something that we didn’t expect to happen.”
The Czech Republic has opened its doors to over 300,000 refugees in a very short time. Is there a danger of ghettoes forming? Of the Ukrainians being treated as cheap labour or second grade citizens?
“I wish I could say no, but we must be realistic. Our population has grown by 3% in only one month. And we have had problems with housing for years. So, we can’t solve it overnight. We have no magic wand to get housing for everyone.
“What’s good news for us, is that most of the refugees are kids, and kids are very easily integrated. Through the education system, and other extracurricular activities like sports clubs, scouting, and so on. But the kids must be included into the mainstream education system. I understand that, given the exceptional situation, some schools have opened special Ukrainian classes. But that’s not sustainable. And it can cause a lot of damage in the future. We must give the kids the opportunity to “catch the train” from the very beginning. To get the opportunity to get education that won’t block their transition to the labor market. We want them to become regular citizens in the future, in twenty years’ time. But if we block it right now, at the beginning, it can be a very serious threat for the society in the future.
“And through the kids we can integrate the parents, the adults. But we must not forget that they are not economic migrants. They are refugees. This is not economic migration, this is humanitarian migration. And they need to be supported as long as possible. Because they have to recover first, before they enter the labor market. There is a huge push on them to be economically independent. And I think that can cause more damage. It can cause ‘brain waste’. Because if you have someone who has a college education, comes here, and is grateful for a job in a supermarket, for this person it’s then very difficult to maintain their level of professional education and work.”
You are talking about the support that we have to provide to refugees. Are we ready for their proper integration? To give them proper housing, education and work opportunities?
“We have a state integration program for refugees. But it reflects the reality of humanitarian migration before the 24th of February when only a few hundred or a few thousand people a year applied for asylum. So, the state integration program is a very individually focused program that can’t satisfy current needs. That’s impossible. Because it’s based on person-to-person support. If you have 300 000 people, then you can’t apply this approach.
“Then we have something like a regular integration policy that is aimed at foreigners legally residing here. It’s usually about language courses, and legal and social counselling. And it works somehow. There are fourteen regional integration centres in the fourteen regions in the country. And also, NGOs help. But the problem is that it’s designed for a continuous inflow of new mostly economic migrants who come here with plans, their own projects, and goals, and plans that they will go back soon, etc.
“But this is very different, because this is humanitarian migration. They don’t know if they will stay or if they will go somewhere else. They don’t know. And the integration policy, and the whole system is weak in comparison to the needs that are emerging. For instance, the state integration center in the southern Bohemian region, for the whole region, has only four employees, and we will need language courses in the whole country. That means that we have to get rid of the approach of the centrally controlled integration policy that we have right now which is managed by the Ministry of Interior. We have to distribute this process all across the country. And we have to encourage municipalities. I am convinced that municipalities must become active partners in the integration of all foreigners regardless of their origin. Now we distinguish between the Ukrainian refugees, and the others. But in a few months the two groups will overlap. It will be the same for the majority society.”
How would you assess the handling of this flow of refugees from Ukraine both by the government and the people of the Czech Republic?
“First, we don’t know how many people will come. We think that there will be half a million people. That means plus five percent of the population. That’s a lot. If I compare it with the regular integration process that has been going on for years, what’s really needed is information. To keep the migrants or refugees, as well as the majority society, informed. Especially the majority society because it must understand the situation. Not only from the national level. Especially right now it will be important to inform on the local level. Only a few municipalities have experience with informing about foreigners living on their territory, on their websites or in their community newspapers. And I think that this will have to become a new standard - that towns and villages will have to involve information about non-native inhabitants in their community newspapers and vice versa.
“Also, the Ukrainian refugees will have to be informed about activities in the village or town to feel part of the community. Otherwise, they will start to concentrate or capsulize in a bubble with other co-ethnics. That’s reasonable, because if you don't feel accepted, you look for something that will make you feel comfortable. So, it can be either a group of your co-ethnics or church. They are very religious, and they will look for churches very soon. And if we miss this moment to keep them involved in the society, it can be a problem.”
Czechs are known for their negative attitude towards refugees, and even migrants from the EU. How come they are open to refugees from Ukraine?
“In my opinion Ukrainians have proved to be people who deserve respect. And not only now because of the war, but even before, because they are known for being hardworking, and almost everyone knows someone of Ukrainian origin. So, it's not something abstract, something in a blur somewhere far away from here. We know them.
“Secondly, I think, because they are fighting for us as well. I think that we Czechs are trying to solve our 1968 complex through their successful fight against the Russians. Even though in 1968, some of the troops who invaded Czechoslovakia, were Ukrainian, too. But that's another story.”
This current wave of solidarity will inevitably wane. How should the government and NGOs approach this to prevent frustration?
“The first thing is information. Keep the information flowing. Otherwise, there's space for conspiracy theories. That's a huge problem. And then, we have to merge our distinction between NGOs focusing exclusively on migrants, and other NGOs. I think that this new situation that brings diversity into places where there was no diversity before February 2022, challenges other NGOs that work with kids, seniors, and others. And they have to become a part of this whole complex of integration of the newcomers.”
Previously, you talked about possibly welcoming up to half a million refugees. Is there a ceiling to what we can handle? And, what is your take on redistributing the refugees to other countries because they have mostly come to the bordering states. Poland has accepted the most.
“I don't dare to think about capacities because I really, really don't know. I'm not an expert in housing, and I have no idea how to solve the housing problem. But, as for the logic of redistribution, I understand that. It's a logical administrative process, but the problem is that it's a kind of social engineering. And people are not robots. They're not as rational as the administration would like to have them. And if we look at other crises, the Syrian crisis in Germany or Indo-Chinese in the USA; in all crises, governments, and administrations try to redistribute refugees. Because it was a redistribution of the burden, financial redistribution, and prevention of formation of ghettos or deprived neighbourhoods. But the problem is that it works only for a few months, and then people concentrate. Because they want to be with their fellows, they want to be close to religious places, markets that provide familiar food or ingredients, their relatives, or other people from their villages.
“That is one thing, and another thing is that in the beginning of the crisis, mostly people from cities came. And if you are urban people, you look for an urban environment. But as the war continues, also people from the countryside are coming, and they prefer the countryside. They prefer to be in an environment that is familiar to them. To have a little house with a garden where they can grow crops. This is also something we should take into account if we think about redistribution of people. Because not everyone wants to live in a city, and not everyone wants to live in the countryside.”
Do you think this refugee crisis will shape society somehow?
“It will change us.”
“It depends how and where they will concentrate. For instance, in the 90s a group of Romanian refugees came to Czechia, and they were settled in the Jeseníky region. It’s north of Moravia, it’s a periphery of periphery. But they didn’t oppose it because they were from that kind of environment. They settled, now they are very well integrated, some of them are even local politicians. They were very religious, and they didn’t drink alcohol because God doesn’t like it.
“And there are studies that prove that the Romanians in Jeseníky region cultivated the local environment. Because they brought religion there, family values because they were large families, and also because they don’t drink, the level of alcoholism dropped. So, it depends where they settle and what human capital they will bring with them. But we mustn’t push the human capital down. If someone is educated, we should give the person the opportunity to use that capital. That opens another problem with recognition of education. I think that will be a huge challenge for the future weeks.”
How has the media coverage of this migration crisis changed compared with for example the European refugee crisis in 2015?
“The main difference that I can see is that the media pays a lot of attention to causes now. In 2015 that was lacking, and the media coverage started with reports of mases on the move, at least in Czechia. We did not get much information about the causes and the situation that preceded the movement. That is one big difference. And another big difference is that the refugees themselves or the actors themselves are not voiceless. They get a voice in media. That’s another huge difference. In 2015 they were rarely interviewed.
“And the last difference is that in 2015 the people we saw in the media were mostly politicians from security ministries like the Ministry of Interior, its staff, and police. And people who represented the more social side of the whole situation like the Ministry of Social Affairs, NGOs or the Ministry of Human Rights weren’t represented almost at all. That’s a huge difference right now. We know the causes, we hear the Ukrainians, the actors, various stories, and not only the Ministery of Interior.”
Tereza Freidingerová is a researcher who teaches courses on Media and Migration at Charles University and works in the migration department of the NGO People in Need. She co-wrote People Between the Lines: A Handbook on Migration for (Future) Journalists.