Czechs learn to cope with immigration


The Czech Republic's policy towards asylum seekers was the topic of a conference organized by the Consortium of Refugee Assisting Organizations in Prague on Wednesday. Representatives of four major non-governmental organizations met with representatives of the Interior Ministry and some politicians to discuss what they see as the major problems faced by asylum seekers. The Senate is just starting to discuss a new asylum bill, which, if everything goes according to plan, should come into effect as of January 1st. Olga Szantova was present at the conference.

The number of asylum seekers in the Czech Republic has soared this year, reaching 14 000, approximately the same as the number of persons seeking asylum in countries like Austria or Switzerland. After decades when Czechoslovakia was a country of emigrants, whose citizens sought asylum abroad, it is still learning to cope with people seeking refuge here. Not only is the Czech Republic psychologically unprepared, its current services remain inadequate for the growing number of immigrants. Pavel Kelly-Tychtl of the Organization for Aid to Refugees feels the new law now under discussion is going to make life even more difficult for refugees in the Czech Republic. Politicians, Mr. Kelly says, do not have the courage to speak up for the rights of asylum seekers.

"In order to defend asylum and the principle of asylum you need a certain courage and you also have to face sometimes not very favorable public opinion because people think that to have refugees means to have problems. They think it means a burden on the social system, and criminality. And a courageous politician has to stand up and explain that this does not have to be the consequence and that a country that wants to call itself democratic has a duty to look after people, who are not fortunate enough to live in a safe and democratic country."

Senator Josef Jarab, on whose invitation the conference was held on Wednesday in the Senate building, thinks that the attitude towards foreigners is not only for politicians to deal with.

"It will take a great deal of good work of NGOs, but also of the government and media to make people realize that we have to pay back to those who need refuge, who come as refugees, and we have to help, as we did, in fact, use the opportunities in the past."

Senator Jarab is convinced that the new asylum law will help asylum seekers.

"The idea behind that law was to speed up the process of finding out whether there is a real reason for granting refugee status, and to make it more efficient. Sometimes it takes a long, long time. If you read the material of these people who as for asylum, they say the most difficult part is the waiting."

As for the NGO's criticism of the bill, the Senate has three weeks to deal with the proposed asylum law and Senator Jarab says that the organizations that deal with refugees will be heard and their experience taken into account.