Is Czechia finally ready to show some solidarity?

Commentary

In Czechia, debates about the EU's New Pact focus only on border protection, return and detention, rather than discussing more relevant proposals on legal migration, integration and inclusion.

The Former Border

This commentary is part of our dossier on the New EU Pact on Migration and Asylum.

 

The “migration crisis” of 2015 in Czechia was not about the number of refugees coming to the country, but about a crisis of leadership, securitisation of the issue, the rise in populism across most political parties and criticism of EU proposals and appeals for solidarity. The position of the country and that of its Visegrád Four neighbours has not developed since the previous proposals to reform the Common European Asylum System (CEAS), strictly resisting any quotas on relocation, compulsory or voluntary. However, as the New Pact’s focus on returns and border protection appeals to our political representation, it is unfortunately very unlikely that when exercising solidarity, Czechia will opt for relocations.

Czech politicians “welcome” proposal

With migration gradually disappearing from the political spotlight due to other emerging issues such as the environment, gender equality and the Covid-19 pandemic, the New Pact and the fire in Moria brought some attention back. Coming just days before regional and upper chamber elections, in which the prime minister’s party ANO 2011 with its coalition partner, the Social Democrats, lost their overall majority, the fears were that the proposal would be used to score easy populistic points by criticising Brussels. However, the election results showed that mobilising migration-related topics is no longer enough, when ANO 2011 substantially weakened its position and several populist anti-EU and anti-migration parties lost ground. Czechia is holding national elections next year, which will show whether this shift from populism to greater realism will continue.

The Prime Minister’s response evolved from immediate criticism  to a softened stance after the Visegrád group met Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, when he acknowledged the possibility of participating in returns and financial support for border protection. The Minister of the Interior, Jan Hamáček (ČSSD), hinted that Czechia would continue to support border protection and asylum processes in the relevant countries with financial and human resources, but would not be drawn on returns and repeated his opposition to relocations. The opposition parties’ reactions were mostly positive, welcoming the new focus on returns and the three solidarity options, but more detailed positions are to be expected from the political parties during the election year.

Coming in the midst of a pandemic, the proposal received limited society and media attention. The response of civil society organisations mainly concerns the lack of human rights safeguards, fears of prolonged detention, violation of children’s rights and an overall focus on returns rather than safe access to asylum procedures. On a more positive note, human rights defenders welcome its more humane approach, efforts to stop the criminalisation of search and rescue operations and the inclusion and integration proposal.

Impact of the proposal on the Czech migration reality

From 2017, the political focus shifted from forced migration to labour migration. In 2019, Czechia hosted about 593,366 migrants against 1922 applicants for international protection. Without substantial political change and/or dramatic developments in Ukraine and Belarus, the impact of the proposal on the situation of migrants in Czechia will be limited. If Czechia participates in the return scheme, civil society organisations fear that prolonged detention of migrants not returned within eight months will be an issue, possibly leading to decreasing standards of detention and legislative changes to reduce human rights protection.

The plans on labour migration including “Talent Partnerships” that might be most relevant to Czechia are underdeveloped and difficult to assess at this early stage. Decent labour migration pathways would be of considerable importance to the migrant population. Likewise, the focus on inclusion and integration initiatives within the new EU framework could provide relevant input to developments in Czechia.

Recommendations

The political reaction to the proposal shows that lessons have been learned from five years of “no compulsory quota” deadlock. The government is approaching the New Pact with cautious optimism and readiness to negotiate.

Return sponsorships and financial support seem to be the only options being considered by politicians, although Czechia lacks experience, contacts and resources in most of the source countries of unsuccessful asylum applicants in Greece, Italy, Spain or Malta. Criticising inefficient return procedures is a very different matter from actively carrying them out. Czechia has resources, capacity and experience to host and integrate refugees, therefore relocation would be the best solidarity option in terms not only of humanity, but also of economics.

The national debate focuses only on border protection, return and detention, rather than discussing more relevant proposals for the Czech environment on legal migration, integration and inclusion.