Prague buckling under the strain as majority of war refugees head for capital city

Ukrainian refugees in Prague’s Congress Centre

Prague’s main centre for registering refugees was overwhelmed on Monday and forced to temporarily close its doors to further applicants for 24 hours. The closure has raised concern among those who waited for hours to register. The interior minister later explained that Prague was buckling under the strain, saying the pressure would have to be distributed more evenly among the country’s regional centres. 

The crowds of Ukrainian refugees cueing up outside Prague’s Congress Centre had been growing by the day until on Monday the authorities were forced to close the door to further applicants – not an easy thing to do to the long lines of exhausted women and children. (80 percent of the adult refugees are women and of the overall number of refugees 55 percent are minors) At a press briefing several hours later, Interior Minister Vít Rakušan said the refugee operation would need to be reorganized, so as to enable the authorities to cope.

“We are dealing with a migrant crisis of unprecedented proportions. The majority of refugees who have come so far have come to Prague and that is proving to be a problem. Our registration centres can serve 8,000 to 10,000 applicants a day. Anything above that is a problem. Today the centre was forced to close because it was bursting at the seams – we need to give people space to sit down, to fill in registration forms and get basic refreshments, such as a drink of water or a snack.”

Ukrainian refugees at Prague’s Congress Centre | Photo: Vít Šimánek,  ČTK

After a slow start, when the Czech Republic was processing five thousand registrations in the first days of the Russian aggression, interest in boarding trains to Prague soared and at the weekend the Interior Ministry announced that there were 100,000 Ukrainian war refugees in the country.

The government, which organized daily humanitarian trains to the Polish and Slovak border, all of which ended up at Prague’s Central Railway Station, was forced to review the situation. It has started ferrying some of those already here to less-burdened registration centres in the regions and transporting them back to Prague in order to ease the burden on both employees and the refugees themselves. The authorities are now negotiating with Czech Railways and private carriers for the trains and busses bringing in refugees to run to other cities as well.

Although the interior minister said it was up to the refugees themselves, whether they wanted to come to Prague after registering elsewhere, he warned that the focus on Prague might be a problem in providing the necessary care that will need to come in the second and third stages of the refugee effort – such as helping the newcomers to find jobs, schools, doctors and dentists.

He said regional governors would have to meet to discuss their individual capacity in this respect and the authorities might soon have to start thinking in terms of a ceiling on the number of refugees the country can accommodate. However, he emphasized that for the present time the Czech Republic was determined to take in as many as possible, which could be several hundred thousand more. Already, of the 100,000 here, 57,000 have received yearlong humanitarian visas.