The following report outlines migration trends and the political dynamics on this issue in Czech Republic, particularly in light of the outbreak of the migration crisis in the summer of 2015. This article is part of the Visegrad Migration Series. 

The migration crisis in the Czech Republic was not signified by the number of refugees crossing the border or applying for protection. Rather, similarly to other V4 countries, its presence was largely felt in public debates and media coverage. The Czech response has been primarily focused on securitization of the issue with considerable criticism of proposals from the EU and Germany. There has been an emphasis on resisting compulsory quotas on the relocation and resettlement of refugees, supporting stronger border protection, and enhancing humanitarian aid in conflicts zones.

There are several reasons behind this harsh political and societal response to the migration crisis. Migration primarily became a topic employed by political groups to score points. These moves have been exacerbated by a vocal and visible Islamophobic movement that has grown quickly and gained significant media attention. The media coverage of refugee crisis in the Czech Republic, meanwhile, can be characterized as “problematic” for a number of reasons. The mainstream media has produced mostly objective reports and served a role in facilitating discussion of the issue among various relevant actors. However, alternative online media sources and even parts of the traditional media have framed the debate from the perspective of Islamophobic and anti-refugee groups. A prime example of this bias is the case of TV Prima, which became internationally infamous when leaked documents from an internal meeting of company executives and editors showed that journalists were given direct instructions from managers to portray refugees only in a negative light. Given that political parties have used the issue of migration as a political ploy, the policy debate has lacked a focus on developing a realistic approach to addressing issues raised by the migration and refugee crisis. This has included a neglect on identifying solutions that could work at the European, national and local levels. President Miloš Zeman has repeatedly[1] voiced his negative attitude towards refugees and Muslims, stressing the need for more stringent border protection and calling on the general public to arm themselves. These populistic positions have supported the rise of xenophobic views, Islamophobia, and the far right movement. The Islamophobic movement in particular has been supported by various actors, including politicians. A prominent example was the appearance of President Miloš Zeman on November 17th – the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution – on the same podium as the leader of the Islamophobic movement,[2] Martin Konvička. Another illustration was the participation of members of parliament, including Jana Černochová (ODS[3]) and Marek Černoch (Usvit[4]), at Islamophobic demonstrations and events.

Societal attitudes toward migrants and refugees are increasingly trending in the negative direction. According to a public opinion poll,[5] only 40 percent of the population personally knows a foreigner, including even when Slovaks are counted in the definition of foreigners. The majority of Czech citizens oppose the acceptance of any migrants (around 60 percent) and a total of 70 percent of respondents oppose allowing refugees to enter the EU. 77% would agree to immediately return refugees to the country from which they entered EU. Only 36% would support any permanent solidarity scheme of relocation of refugees within EU states. 79% agrees with border controls of all people including EU citizens. 50% would agree to help financially and by other means to other EU states facing higher number of refugees. Such negative sentiment has been fuelled by the swelling Islamophobic movement, which carried out various activities in 2015. The Facebook page of the initiative “Islam v ČR nechceme” managed to gain 160 000 followers before it was shut down by Facebook for racist content. A number of links were also established between political parties, actors from the Islamophobic movement, and extremist neo-Nazi and right wing groups. And paramilitary groups were established with the mission to protect borders and Czech homes against a potential refugee invasion (though without tremendous success).

In contrast to other V4 countries, the Czech government has been trying to balance the negative political response to the EU and especially its largest neighbour in Germany. In the first debate over quotas, the Czech Republic voluntarily committed itself to receiving almost the same number of refugees as proposed by the Commission[6]. Even though they later opposed compulsory quotas, the government accepted its obligation and reluctantly began fulfilling its role in the relocation and resettlement programs. Similarly, the prime minister reached out to German leadership to mitigate any reaction to its negative response to EU proposals and facilitate a strategic dialogue on migration with Germany. At the national level, despite populistic boasting, several policy changes were approved. The migration policy strategy of the Czech Republic, for example, defined the principles on which its migration policy would be based. Furthermore, changes in the policy documents on the integration of migrants and refugees were made in order to better prioritize the integration process. Despite the success of the Islamophobic movement in galvanizing protestors in 2015, their failed attempts to form a political movement to contest regional elections showed that a single issue anti-Muslim campaign was not enough to win elections. The endeavour also demonstrated the potential for internal political battles to hinder the movement. Nevertheless, significant damage was inflicted, with 70 percent of the population expressing anti-refugee sentiment and the main political parties and/or their representatives routinely using Islamophobic and xenophobic rhetoric as a shared political language.

Migrant population in the Czech Republic – trends in 2015

In 2015, 467,562 legally residing foreign nationals were registered in the Czech Republic, which is a 3.5 percent increase compared to 2014, and represents about 4.4 percent of the population of the country. Out of this number, 196,378 were EU nationals. The biggest groups were from Ukraine (104,388), Slovakia (96,222) and Vietnam (56,666).

In 2015, 448,371 applications for short term Schengen visas were registered at the embassies of the Czech Republic abroad, constituting about a 17 percent decrease compared to 2014. Out of the 2014 total, 426,509 visas were granted. The largest number of applications were submitted in Moscow followed by Lviv and Kyiv.

A total of 6.1 million people crossed the border of the Czech Republic in 2015, with EU nationals comprising 53 percent of the figure, third country nationals making up 33 percent of the number, and third country nationals without a visa 14 percent.

There were 469 people who were denied entry at the external border, a 40 percent increase compared to 2014. This figure comprised 92 Iraqis, 56 Russians, and 50 recognized refugees under the 1951 Geneva Convention.

International protection[7]

A total of 1,525 people submitted applications for international protection in the Czech Republic in 2015. This figure constitutes a 31.9 percent increase compared to 2014. Since 2003, when 11,400 individuals applied, the numbers declined until the end of 2014. Under the EU resettlement scheme, the Czech Republic accepted a quota of 400 although only 52 refugees had arrived by June 2016. Currently there is no selection in process in Jordan or Lebanon, though 88 Syrians from Turkey under the EU–Turkey deal should be resettled by the end of the year[8]. Under the relocation scheme (with a Czech quota of 2,691), four Syrians arrived from Greece and ten other refugees were selected, but are still awaiting their final transit. In comparison to Slovakia and Hungary, the Czech government accepted the EU quota scheme, albeit with strong criticism toward the EU.

Table 1: Asylum process outcomes (2007-2015). Full statistics at the end.

In 2015, despite the migration crisis, there was no substantial increase in the number of asylum seekers in the country. The Czech Republic instead seemingly only became a transit country for refugees using the Western Balkan route to reach Germany via Hungary. These refugees tended not to apply for international protection and when apprehended by the police, they were detained under the Act on the Residency of Foreigners[9]. A total of 3,121 people were detained in 2015, marking a substantial increase compared to 2014 (+612.6 percent). There has notably been a significant increase in the number of children and unaccompanied minors transiting through the territory, including 151 unaccompanied minors in 2015 (compared to 23 in 2014).

Table 2: Top 10 countries of origin of foreigners in detention centers in the Czech Republic

Migrants represent about 5 percent of the population of the Czech Republic – the highest of any V4 country, though still ranking among the lowest in the EU. Even though the number of asylum seekers has been increasing, it is still extremely low compared to the number of legally residing foreigners in the country. Even if the Czech Republic accepts the number of refugees and asylum seekers laid out in the EU quotas and if the number of asylum seekers applying internally remains the same, the figures will not reach even half of the number of applicants that existed in 2003, a total that did not cause any problems for society. More than six million people cross the borders annually, which makes establishing complete border controls – demanded by many politicians –  extremely challenging.

I.   Migrant politics: Security and border protection without refugees

Migration and refugees became a topic of public debate in the second half of 2014 when the government repeatedly postponed a decision to resettle from Jordan and Lebanon to the Czech Republic 15 sick Syrian children with their families for treatment and protection. This decision was challenged by civil society groups at a demonstration headlined ”Do Syrian children have to wait for their Nicolas Winton?”, which at the time drew a parallel to Sir Nicolas Winton who had just received a state honour for saving Jewish children during World War II[10]. The final decision about the resettlement of Syrian children was finally taken in January 2015, but only three children with families were resettled by mid-2016; the project has been put on hold.

The government position on the refugee crisis at the national level has been built around security as the primary consideration. This focus has been visible in all responses related to the development and implementation of policy on the issue.

The political response at the European level, meanwhile, consisted of providing support to the Visegrad position, which stipulated that there could be no forced solidarity mechanism and that the EU must provide protection to the external border. Ministers directly supported the Hungarian response to the crisis – with its focus on ensuring border security – by providing assistance, including policemen and material aid, to Hungary and Macedonia. However, unlike other V4 countries Prime Minister Sobotka sought to build a bridge between Germany and the V4. A strategic dialogue[11] on migration was successfully implemented by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, chaired by Vladimir Spidla who is the head of Sobotka’s advisers.

Approach of the government: Policy of deterrence – administrative detentions

The Czech Republic has not been substantially affected by the Balkan route. In 2015, about 3,100 refugees were detained due to illegally crossing the border with the intention to transit to Germany. There are no available estimates of how many individuals crossed the border without being apprehended. However, there were no substantial movements of irregular migrants through the Czech territory. Therefore, the government did not have to cope with any humanitarian or other crises dealing with people on the move. Through rigid implementation of the Act on Foreigners, the country created a humanitarian crisis of its own though in the detention facilities for irregular migrants.

Refugees heading to Germany were detained under the Dublin regulation to be returned mainly to Hungary. However, Hungary refused to accept returnees until the third quarter of 2015. The majority of detainees were consequently released after 40-90 days and continued to Germany. Detentions centres were plagued by overcrowding and limited detainee access to basic necessities and services such as clothing, bathrooms and toilets, health care, and legal aid. Administrative barriers and other obstacles were imposed on lawyers seeking to access the detention centers to provide services. The Public Defender of Rights published an extremely critical report concerning detention conditions[12]stating:

“The severe conditions which children and families with children have to endure in Bělá-Jezová constitute a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Objectively speaking, children in the facility have worse living conditions than inmates in Czech prisons. Bělá-Jezová is a former military facility where the living conditions are, in many ways, much worse than those in Czech prisons. Prison inmates are people who committed a crime and were convicted for it. On the other hand, the people in Bělá have not been convicted of any crime and no sentence has been imposed on them. The fact that hundreds of children are detained in this facility goes against our notion of the Czech Republic as a civilised country…. The European Court of Human Rights considers the Convention on the Rights of the Child and Article 3 of the European Convention breached if a facility exhibits the following characteristics: the facility is inhabited mostly by adults; the facility is visibly under police supervision; the facility cannot provide children with entertaining activities. Bělá-Jezová meets all three of these characteristics. Such makeshift conditions would probably be acceptable in a refugee camp for thousands of people near a war zone. However, they are completely unacceptable in Central Europe. I believe that our country is perfectly capable of providing a couple hundreds of people with living conditions corresponding to 21st century standards and that we do not have to traumatise their children in a way we would never traumatise our own. These people did nothing wrong. They have not been convicted of any crime. In spite of this, we let them suffer. This is completely unnecessary.”

The detention conditions were further criticized by international bodies and officials, including UNHCR and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights[13]. In 2015, two new detention centres were opened and the situation improved. However, the fact that irregular migrants must pay for their stay in detention is viewed by civil society and defenders of human rights as a repressive political tool designed to deter refugees from transiting through or staying in the Czech Republic and applying for international protection.

Party politics

The parliamentary political parties responded to the migration crisis with a restrictive approach towards the issue of migration, refugees and their integration. The positions of all major parties can be regarded as conservative in disposition, with an emphasis on the maintenance of security, the protection of borders, and the provision of support to countries in conflict. Concerning European policy on asylum and migration, all political parties have articulated their strong rejection of the system of quotas on relocation. The parties instead support enhancing cooperation in border protection and finding solutions to the problem outside EU territory. A majority of parties have called on individual member states to be responsible in securing the external borders of the EU and particularly respecting their obligations under the CEAS[14], including especially the Dublin regulations. The party position statements are mostly general in nature, without tangible action plans and concrete measures on how to achieve them. The majority of public statements on the issue further tend to only mention the protection of borders, without expressing any notion of responsibility and solidarity of the Czech Republic in the current migration crisis. Even supposedly moderate views are based on a strategy of omission (e.g. selecting refugees based on their religious beliefs, thereby accepting Christians based on the argument that they have a higher potential to integrate in the society).

CSSD and ANO – the two largest parties – are representing what can be characterized as a restrictive to moderate position on migration, though the opinions in both parties substantially differ.

The CSSD’s[15] position statement from September 2015[16] accords with the government stance in stressing border protection, coordinated humanitarian relief in countries with conflict, and voluntary solidarity measures. The document also identifies integration as a process in which NGOs, religious organizations, and volunteers should all be involved. This stance is primarily supported by the prime minister and head of the Sobotka Party together with the Minister of Human Rights, the Minister of Labour and Social Affairs, and former EU commissioner Spidla. According to these officials, the Czech Republic has the capacity and is prepared to host refugees in similar numbers as proposed by the Commission in the obligatory quota scheme. Sobotka emphasizes the positive role of volunteers and NGOs in the refugee crisis. A more stringent view is taken by the Minister of Interior the governor of the South Moravia region, and several MPs (e.g. Škromach). These actors have placed more stress on border security, the strengthening of other security measures, and the detaining of asylum seekers transiting through the territory in order to deter them from entering the Czech Republic.

The ANO 2011 Party, as in other policy areas, has not presented a clear vision on migration and integration. The party rejects the obligatory quota scheme and proposes an externalization of asylum procedure to the countries of origin. The leader of the party and Minister of Finance Andrej Babiš at one time pointed to a potential contribution from refugees. In September 2015, following the Luxemburg summit, he stated that the Czech Republic lacked workers for 18,000 low qualified jobs and noted that a portion of these vacancies could be filled by refugees, which could be an opportunity to strengthen the country’s economy[17]. However, in 2016, Babiš returned to a more hard-line stance, arguing that his country would be unable to accept any refugees owing to what he deemed as an inability of refugees to integrate into society[18]. MEP Pavel Telička[19] in July 2015 presented his perspective on solving the migration crisis, with a plan focused on the provision of humanitarian aid in countries of conflict and countries neighboring conflict zones, the externalization of asylum procedures, and the return of refugees. However, Telička did not fully reject the right of refugees to request and receive asylum. Some members of the party have opposed the hard-line stance of Babiš. This includes Kristyna Zelienková, who left the party in July 2016 and has publicly expressed criticism regarding internal processes within the party and also developed several political differences with Babiš including on the issue of migration[20]. MP Jiří Zlatuška, employing social media channels, has also called for solidarity and support for refugees.

A more moderate position is also advanced by the TOP 09 and KDU – ČSL parties. While both parties have supported border protection measures and opposed any mandatory solidarity mechanism, they have, nevertheless, have set themselves apart in being open to seeking out a common European solution. Of TOP 09, Karel Schwarzenberg has promoted a more humanitarian and human rights oriented stance. Both parties supported the Generation 21 project focused on bringing Christian IDPs from Iraq. KSČM and TOP 09 both also differ from other political parties by specifically mentioning integration measures (albeit in rather general terms) as part of their political position[21].

A firm restrictive position has been formulated by ODS, which outlined its position in a document titled: “So that we will not have to be afraid (security and migration)”[22]. As already indicated by its title, the position statement calls for the complete securitization of the issue and proposes to externalize asylum procedures, strengthen readmission agreements, and abolish the institution of asylum, which would instead be replaced only with subsidiary protection. They are specifically targeting NGOs active in migration issues in calling for more control over activities that NGOs are implementing and financing of the NGO sector.

Far right and Islamophobic views are represented by two populistic parties – Svoboda a přímá demokracie[23] and Úsvit- NK[24]. They are openly xenophobic, Islamophobic and anti-migration movements with nationalistic and fascist tendencies. They have proposed several legislative measures in violation of the international obligations of the country and they are battling what they deem the Brussels dictatorship and political correctness.

II.   Policies and legislation that arose in the midst of the refugee crisis

Strategy of Migration Policy of the Czech Republic

In reaction to the refugee crisis the government in July 2015 approved a complex migration strategy of the Czech Republic[25] – the first of its kind for the Czech Republic. It is a strategic document that defines seven principles to be achieved both at the national and European level. They include: the integration of foreigners, a return policy for irregular immigration, international protection (asylum), the external dimension of immigration, free movement inside the Schengen area, legal immigration, and coordination with common European immigration policies. Each principle contains a short description of the current state, tools that the strategy will rely on, and the level of harmonization of EU law. The central pillar of the strategy is an emphasis on national security, framing migration primarily as a threat to national security rather than an opportunity to build an inclusive society with integrated migrant communities. Integration is viewed as a tool to ensure – for Czech citizens – peaceful cohabitation with migrants and prevent negative social phenomena. Due to the securitization focus of the document, it fails to acknowledge that integration is two-way process with responsibilities resting also on the side of the hosting community. Moreover, the rights and needs of migrants are not taken into consideration in the strategy, an angle which has been criticized by civil society actors. An integral part of the document is the communication strategy focused on the communication of priorities to the general public and experts. The communication strategy has been very poorly implemented without any concrete effects.

Integration policies

In reaction to the refugee crisis and the adoption of the migration policy strategy, two key integration policy documents were changed in a positive manner. In January 2016, the government adopted a proposal – the Updated Policy for the Integration of Foreigners – with the framing “In mutual respect”[26]. In response to the refugee crisis, the target group of the policy was broadened to also include those persons designated international protection.

Major changes were approved at the end of 2015 to the State Integration Program (SIP)[27], which provides support to holders of international protection as they integrate in a country. Beginning in 2016, the updated version of the SIP came into force, reflecting the current migration situation and governmental measures adopted in accordance with European resettlement and relocation policies. For 2016, the programme will be allocated a total of 200 million CZK (7,400,000 euros), with 73 million CZK (2,000,000 euros) allocated from the state budget and the rest from EU AMIF. The capacity of the program was designed to assist up to 2,000 refugees and subsidiary protection holders. There are two key changes in the program. It establishes the General Provider of Integration Services whose task is to coordinate actions and provide integration services to eligible persons on the national level in cooperation with other actors, including NGOs and municipalities. For the year 2016, Charitas Czech Republic was contracted by the Ministry of Interior without public tender. The system is individually tailored for each beneficiary (international protection holders). The service provider, together with the beneficiary, prepares an individual integration plan according to the needs of each individual or family within the limits of the allocated budget. The plan is approved by the General Provider and the Ministry of Interior. The individual plan has to cover key defined spheres of integration:

  • ·       Accommodation: arranging a lease agreement, provision of basic furnishings and appliances.
  • ·       Employment: registration in the Labour Office, assistance with job search and retraining.
  • ·       Education and language competencies: free Czech language course (400 hours), integration into the education system, basic socio-cultural courses.
  • ·       Welfare system: access to and assistance with social benefit applications.
  • ·       Health care: assistance with enrolling in a health insurance program and finding suitable medical practitioners.
  • ·       Interpretation assistance and legal and social counselling.
  • ·       Integration services will be provided for a period of 6 to 12 months.

From January 2016, Charitas CR has been contracted as a general provider. As of September 2016, 371 people have been registered for the program and 62 integration plans have been approved. Even though the implementation of the updated SIP poses some problems, the overall concept of individual planning has been considered a step in the right direction by NGO integration experts. The primary criticism is directed to the non-transparent selection of the General Provider and insufficient financial support for the system.

III.   Civil society response

NGOs, human rights activists, the religious community, and other civil society actors have responded to the humanitarian needs of refugees, including those in detention, on the Balkan route, in Lesbos and, in refugee facilities in Germany. Furthermore, civil society actors have sought to displace the dominant discourse of Islamophobia, xenophobia and racism through various initiatives. The crisis in the Balkans culminated in a strong humanitarian response from NGOs working in the field and volunteers travelling to the Balkans to assist refugees. Support for refugees transiting through the Czech Republic was also particularly visible. People offered accommodation, food, and work opportunities for refugees.

Sobotka also attempted to balance the harsh attacks against refugees lodged by the President. Some politicians and segments the general population expressed gratitude to volunteers and NGOs, with leaders inviting them for a special meeting in November 2015 to recognize their work. Regular meetings between the Head of Advisors and civil society representatives have been organized by Mr. Špidla.

NGO sector

Various organizations responded to the humanitarian needs of refugees in detention, providing training and support to volunteers. Policy and advocacy NGOs worked both individually and through an umbrella consortium of NGOs working with migrants. They advocated against the violation of migrant rights in detention centers, but in favour of accepting the quota scheme and enhancing support for resettlement and relocation initiatives. At the policy level, a major document was prepared within the Migration NGO Consortium titled the Migration Manifesto[28]. NGOs responded to the Strategy of Migration Policy in part by outlining their experiences and views on migration and integration in general and specifically on the policy related to migration and integration. The document is targeted toward policymakers and other stakeholders. It is an idea-based manifesto of values and principles that are regarded as fundamental to the establishment of a socially just society. And it is based on several principles – freedom of movement, solidarity with refugees, the development of an integration policy, social rights of migrants, education, employment, and political participation.

Volunteers

Volunteers hold a crucial role in attending to the humanitarian needs of refugees in detention centers as well as refugees on the move.

The “Czech Team” is a group of mostly Czech volunteers who have organized efforts to support refugees passing through the Balkans. It started on the initiative of a few individuals who decided to travel on their own to the Hungarian border town of Rozske with the intention of providing assistance where needed. The initiative comprises individuals from various generations, including students, teachers, entrepreneurs, activists, and pensioners. What was initially a small-scale initiative of a few individuals who were ready to offer their assistance gradually developed into a larger movement of committed individuals who spent days, weeks and months in various parts of the Balkan route to support relief efforts there, primarily through their own financial resources and donations. The initiative was formalized into the association Pomahame lidem na uteku.

A very well organized group of volunteers – the Initiative Hlavák – also operates at the central train station in Prague, providing assistance to individuals who have been released from detention camps in the Czech Republic and plan to transit to another country. They aid them with general orientation, the purchase of train tickets, and the provision of food, clothes, and accommodation (for one to two nights in Prague) if necessary. If an individual decides to apply for asylum in the Czech Republic, the volunteers contact NGOs who are capable of providing legal assistance.

Academia

There are several initiatives of scholars, universities, and students developed in response to the societal debate surrounding the issue. One initiative, which has received extensive support including from 3,000 scholars, is a group that frames itself as “Academics against fear and indifference”.[29]The organization has focused on reorienting the public debate from one based on hate to one instead premised on facts and dialogue. In this regard, they have criticized the media and politicians for their failure to demonstrate moral responsibility throughout the migration crisis.

There are several initiatives also striving to provide resources that could enable a more informed debate, including an online encyclopedia on migration created by the Student Movement for Solidarity[30] and a new website[31] developed by the Philosophy Faculty at Masaryk University in Brno. Several universities have provided scholarships to English speaking students or provide financial support to students participating in volunteer activities in the Balkans or Greece.

Business

The Czech Republic has a very low unemployment rate and consequently many companies are encountering problems in completing their workforce[32]. With this need in mind, during the refugee crisis, several employers entered the discussion by offering to provide employment and accommodation for hundreds of refugees and their families. A variety of companies from the manufacturing industry to IT experts have highlighted not only the beneficial economic impact that refugees can have on local economy, but also the humanitarian aspects of the issue and the importance of demonstrating solidarity with people in need.[33] The two largest business associations (the Chamber of Commerce of the Czech Republic and the Association of Industry and Trade] later joined the discussion revolving around refugees with similar statements. The Chamber of Commerce, together with the Association of Integration and Migration (NGO), established Fund for Refugees. The Chamber made a commitment to allocate resources for the retraining of refugees and other necessary support to facilitate integration into the labor market. The Fund has been inactive due to the lack of refugees in the Czech Republic.

Anti-migration response of the society

The growth of the Islamophobic, xenophobic, and anti-refugee movements developed as a reaction to the refugee crisis in the EU. Their tacit support can be illustrated in opinion polls showing that77 percent of Czechs would agree with the immediate return of refugees to the country from which they entered EU. Only 36 percent of respondents would support a permanent solidarity scheme involving the relocation of refugees within EU states. A total of 79 percent agree with enacting border controls within the EU for all people, including EU citizens. With regard to cooperation, 50 percent would support providing financial aid or other support to assist other EU members facing higher numbers of refugees.

The Islamophobic and xenophobic movements started to grow as a reaction to refugee crises in EU. At the beginning, these extremist groups were active, but only organized online on social media. They shared, created, and spread misinformation, hoaxes and other anti-Muslim, anti-refugee content. The largest of these fringe initiatives – IVCRN[34] – organized a series of demonstrations (34) attended by 400-1000 people throughout 2015 in Prague, Brno, Ceske Budejovice and other regions.

In June, the initiative was transformed into a registered association called Blok proti Islámu (Block against Islam) led by Martin Konovička. BPI sought cooperation with political parties and individual politicians and successfully allied with Úsvit and individual MPs from ODS, ANO and others. They managed to be part of and organize events in both chambers of the Czech Parliament regarding the danger of Islam. They organized several petitions against Islam and the proposed EU compulsory solidarity mechanism on relocation and resettlement. The most significant success for BPI came from a demonstration organized in November 2015 on the anniversary of the Velvet revolution. The protest was attended by 2500 people, including President Miloš Zeman who spoke at the event and met Martin Konvička at the podium. At the European level, cooperation with Pegida and the National Front of Marie Le Pen has been established.

More recently, these fringe groups have encountered increasing fragmentation and declining support, owing in part to internal differences within the movement and financial disputes. In 2016, the attendance at demonstrations dropped to around 20-100 people. The decline of Martin Konvička was particularly highlighted by a dramatic August 2016 public spectacle in Prague, organized by his initiative. On the anniversary of the Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia on the 21stAugust 2016, the group staged an ISIS attack invasion in the city center of Prague, resulting in panic among tourists. The police interrupted the demonstration and arrested organizers.[35]

The migration crisis also further mobilized conventional right wing extremist groups. One example of their participation included a anti-immigrant demonstration in Prague, organized together with Islamophobic groups, in which gallows with the name of the ombudswoman, the prime minister, the minister for human rights were paraded. Národní demokracie (one of the extreme right-wing groups) issued a July 2015 call to organize militia groups to protect themselves from Muslims.[36] While there were once several active groups, journalists have reported that the majority of the groups have been inactive in 2016.[37] In April 2016 though, Neo-Nazi signs were sprayed in metro stations and on several Prague cafes that had labelled themselves as hate-free zones. Politicians and parts of civil society reacted strongly against these actions.[38] The autonomous centre Klinika was attacked by a neo-Nazi group on account of their active involvement in providing assistance to refugees.[39]

Conclusions

Public discussions concerning refugees are filled with expressions of fear, hatred, and negative emotions towards migrants. Islamophobic and extreme right movements, meanwhile, are growing and the majority of population opposes the settlement of any refugees in the country. Furthermore, there have been calls for enhanced border controls. However, public opinion polls paint a very different picture about the general satisfaction of the population. CVVM polls inquiring about the public’s satisfaction with life[40] shows that 70 percent of the population is very satisfied or generally satisfied with their lives. Unemployment figures are among the lowest in the EU and employers have thousands of vacant job positions available.

The Czech Republic will hold three elections in the upcoming two years. In October 2016, regional elections will take place. The election campaign has been influenced by anti-migration sentiment and the results will be indicative for what to expect in national elections in 2017. The major challenge may lie in the mainstream political parties implementing a more hard-line anti-refugee position, if the regional elections prove the populistic approach beneficial. The CSSD under the leadership of Prime Minister Sobotka is at the crossroads. Will it uphold the social democratic values of human rights and solidarity or rather follow its counterparts in Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland? Sobotka will be forced to ultimately choose whether he wishes to remain supportive of EU cooperation and strategic dialogue with Germany or steer the country closer in the direction of Russia and V4 countries. In 2018, presidential elections will be on the minds of voters. Milos Zeman has already started his re-election campaign, but the biggest question remains whether an opposing candidate, supported by dissatisfied civil society actors and other sceptics of the administration, with a pro-European orientation will arise.

The migration crisis, even when experienced in the Czech Republic largely without a refugee presence, serves as a worrying illustration of how our society can be easily radicalized through the combination of a lack of responsibility coming from political and societal elites, unethical and shoddy job performance by the media, the domination of social online media through propaganda, corruption, and frustration of society. The migration or refugee crisis has not been a crisis of refugees or migrants but rather a crisis of leadership and politics.

 

APPENDIX: Data

 

 


[2] Until 2016, Martin Konvicka was the leader of the movement Islam v ČR nechceme, after internal conflicts within the movement, he established his own organisation – Initiative of Martin Konvička

[3] Občanská demokratická strana /Civic Democratic Party – central right party

[4] Úsvit – Národní Koalice –extreme right wing political party

[9] Act on Residence of Foreigners 326/1999 Sb.

[14] Common European Asylum System

[15]The  Czech Social-Democratic Party (Česká strana sociálně demokratická)

[16] Declaration of the Czech Social-Democratic Party on solving the migration crisis, https://www.cssd.cz/data/files/a3-migrace-1.pdf

[34] Islám v České republice nechceme (We do not want islam in the Czech Republic)

[36] Report on extremism in the Czech Republic in year 2015 (Zpráva o extremismu na území ČR v roce 2015),http://www.mvcr.cz/clanek/extremismus-vyrocni-zpravy-o-extremismu-a-strategie-boje-proti-extremismu.aspx