Problems for children born to foreigners in the Czech Republic

Imagine the situation. A couple from abroad live in the Czech Republic. They both have permanent residence permits and both pay taxes and have full health insurance. She is pregnant and gives birth to their child in a Prague hospital. The child is premature and seriously underweight, and spends several weeks in intensive care. In the end the child goes home safe and well, but this is just the beginning. The child is not insured and can only be insured if the parents can prove to an insurance company that the child is healthy. Catch twenty-two. Through no fault of their own, the parents now face a bill from the hospital running to millions of crowns. If they fail to pay, they will face expulsion from the country. David Vaughan reports.

This is a true story, and it reveals a gaping hole in the new law on residency for foreigners, that came into effect at the beginning of last year. Under the law, even if parents have permanent or long-term residence permits, their new-born children do not inherit the same rights, and as aliens in the Czech Republic are obliged to purchase insurance on a commercial basis. Few, if any, insurance companies would be willing to take out a policy for a new-born child in the knowledge that it was in the middle of expensive medical treatment. The case has led to pressure for the foreigners' law to be amended, and this was the subject of a press-conference this week in Prague. One of those there was the German writer and journalist Markus Pape. He and his wife have lived in the Czech Republic for many years, and last week their child was born here in Prague: Markus Pape goes a step further. He believes that the law is a sign of latent xenophobia in Czech society, and he's convinced that it's even beginning to drive skilled foreigners away from the country. So I put the question to one of the lawmakers, Civic Democrat MP Milan Cabrnoch, who is deputy chairman of the parliamentary committee for health and social policy. Does the law discriminate against foreigners?

"I don't agree that what we're talking about is discrimination. I agree that there is a problem; that the foreigners' law doesn't enable children born to parents with permanent residence permits to gain the same status as their parents straight away. And I agree that we should amend the law so that children can apply for permanent residency as soon as they are born."

Mr Cabrnoch gives assurances that the amendment will be put before parliament in the coming months. In the meantime, the couple whose child was born prematurely will continue to face a huge bill and possible expulsion. Last month the deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla said that the Czech Republic needed more skilled foreign workers to boost the economy. Foreigners here often complain that the bureaucracy surrounding residence permits can be a nightmare, so if Mr Spidla really wants to attract more people to this country, this will probably not be the last reform that will have to be made to the foreigners' law.