Voluntary returns programme ends amidst new flood of immigrants

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Tuesday was the last day on which jobless foreign workers could apply for assistance under the Czech Interior Ministry’s voluntary returns programme launched in February. Over the past eleven months the ministry was ready to assist some 4,000 foreigners but much fewer people than expected applied. Meanwhile, despite the economic crisis, the country has become one of the most attractive target destinations for immigrants.

Under the Interior Ministry’s voluntary returns programme, which ended on Tuesday, laid-off immigrants in the Czech Republic could apply for a free plane ticket home, 500 euros in cash, and a promise of easier paper work once the economic situation improved. Tomáš Haišman is the head of the ministry’s migration and asylum policy department.

“The programme helped people who were in a very difficult situation, and wanted to solve it on a voluntary basis. We stretched our hand to them, and more than 2,300 people left the Czech Republic with this assistance.”

The first phase of the scheme, which lasted until July, was fairly successful as nearly 2,000 people applied to return to their country of origin. The ministry then followed up with another stage that also covered illegal aliens. But the number of foreigners interested in getting a free flight home proved to be far lower than the authorities expected. Tomáš Haišman again.

“The first phase was limited to 2,000 people and it was almost completely fulfilled by the middle of this year. The second phase was less successful. But that’s logical because most of the people in a critical situation had already left the Czech Republic for another country, or maybe for their home country, on their own.”

While Interior Ministry officials say they are fairly satisfied with the scheme, the number of foreigners in the Czech Republic is higher than ever. From a transit country in the 1990s, the Czech Republic has become a target destination for thousands of immigrants from eastern Europe and countries of the former Soviet Union. Lucie Sládková is the head of the Czech branch of the International Organization for Migration.

“From the new millennium, from the year 2000, the Czech Republic has seen a rapid annual increase of immigrants who want to settle in the country. Currently, there are 435,000 legal foreigners residing in the Czech Republic, which is more than in Poland, Slovakia and Hungary combined.”

With the Czech economy slowly recovering and the language affinity for Slavs, experts believe the Czech Republic will continue to attract foreigners by the thousands. The Interior Ministry says that for the time being, no further voluntary returns schemes are planned.