The Czech Republic, along with other Visegrad countries such as Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia, have refused to follow the EU’s refugee quota system. To meet the quota of refugees, the Czech Republic must admit at least 2 600 individuals, which is calculated with reference to the country’s population size. However, rather than loosening their security measures to facilitate this process, the country has instead been considering implementing broader security steps. According to President Miloš Zeman, “Our country simply cannot afford to risk terrorist attacks like what occurred in France and Germany. By accepting migrants, we would create fertile ground for barbaric attacks.” To date, the Czech Republic has only accepted 12 refugees in total, and has not voiced any plans to take in any more, demonstrating not only a blatant disregard for EU mandates, but also for the value of the lives and safety of refugees in a display of prejudiced nationalist sentiment.
The European Commission has threatened the Czech Republic with legal action if they continue to refuse to make adjustments and meet the refugee quota. As a worldwide humanitarian crisis, it is every country’s prerogative to absorb what they can. This mandate greatly pertains to the Czech Republic, as they have the capacity to significantly improve the lives of many.
Ever since the fall of communism, the Czech Republic has had to fundamentally reinvent its identity. This factor, compounded by the rise of populism, could be what had contributed to the Czech Republic’s lack of will to cooperate with the EU. This principle also extends to the other Visegrad countries who likewise pursued anti-refugee policies.
During the summer of 2015, thousands of refugees arrived in Greece and Italy. As a result, the aid of the Czech Republic to absorb the massive influx of people was greatly needed. However, the Czech Republic, a country rooted with anti-immigration sentiment – of which could either be due to a lasting remnant of their communist legacy or a need to defend their identity – refused to accept any into their borders, and instead chose to act as a migrant-sending or transit country.
In 2015 and 2016, the Czech Republic’s Interior Minister devised a plan to ‘catch’ any refugees who attempted to come into the country from Austria and Hungary. The individuals who were found by patrols were then sent to detention centers, for a period of anywhere between 30 and 90 days, not including the rarer cases where individuals were detained for as long as six months. Once released, these refugees were allowed to continue on to their intended destination countries, demonstrating a lack of intention to settle in the Czech Republic at all, with less than 50 asylum applications in 2015. Furthermore, these detention centers did not follow legal or human rights standards, with their insufficient medical and psychological assistance, overcrowding, and low food supplies. Journalists and NGOs were usually denied entry into the facilities. Even after the detention centers were deemed unlawful by the European Commission and European Court of Human Rights, the practises continued. These practises are called ‘politics of discouragement’ and are widely supported by Czech citizens.
Despite this widespread support in the country, there are still many Czechs who volunteered to distribute humanitarian aid on the Balkan route, as well as a few Czech NGOs involved in helping this humanitarian crisis. But these individuals and organisations face enormous pressure from both the public and the government. Since they are supported only by public funding, this leaves them vulnerable, and their access to sufficient resources is often limited.
As indicated in President Zeman’s statement justifying the refusal of refugees on the premise that they are a security threat, the driving force behind anti-immigration politics seems to be Islamophobia. Based on the polls, most Czech citizens are anti-immigration, showing that this is a perspective held not only by the government, but its people as well.
While the EU has threatened to sanction the Czech Republic’s actions, this would only be ‘bandaid-ing’ the issue. As a deeply Islamophobic phenomenon, the perspective of the country towards the humanitarian crisis requires a shift. Without any shift in perception, migrants will continue to feel unsafe, and will face potential socio-economic hardships even if they are permitted entry into the country. Similarly, the EU has to understand the fact that the Czech Republic has a very recent history that impacts its current decisions. Simply fining the county will likely not be sufficient to drive progress. Shifting the mentality of a large group of people starts through education. If the EU is to have a hand in creating lasting change and prevent similar patterns in the future, a possible course of action is to fund NGOs who develop educational programs for youth to teach them about other cultures in the hopes of decreasing Islamophobia.