Migration and Integration in Czechia: Policy Advances and the Hand Brake of Populism
Since regaining its independence in 1989 and peacefully splitting from the Slovak Republic in 1993, the Czech Republic has been transforming itself from a formerly socialist/communist state into a democratic, parliamentary one based on a free-market economy. In 1999, the country joined NATO, and, in 2004 along with several other former communist states, the European Union (EU). Moreover, in 2007, the country joined the Schengen area, abolishing internal border controls and, at the same time, strengthening the guarding of its one outer border.
During the past three decades, Czechia has quickly transformed from a land of emigration to one of transit migration and currently, rising immigration. Today, it is by far the most attractive destination for migrants in post-communist Central and Eastern Europe. In 2017, just under 5 percent (524,000) of the population of 10.6 million was comprised of legally resident migrants—up from less than 1 percent in 1993. Estimates of the number of unauthorized migrants stretch from 15,000 to 300,000, depending on the forms of irregularity studied.
Box 1. Czech Republic vs. Czechia
Though standardized in 1993, the geographical short-form name “Czechia” entered broader formal usage in 2016 upon its inclusion into the UN lists of official country names.
“Czech Republic” remains in use primarily in political contexts. In this article the authors use “Czechia,” except when referring to official terminology.
The capital city, Prague, is home to 37 percent of the country’s migrants, who are also more likely to be found in other big Czech cities and in border areas. While foreigners have made an impact on Czech society, their most significant influence is felt in the labor market. Most have become part of the so-called secondary labor market where they mostly work in labor-intensive, difficult—and sometimes dangerous—low-paid jobs.
In recent years, the country has faced important challenges such as the global economic crisis, the 2015-16 European migration and refugee crisis, and intensive growth of the local economy, with important implications for migration policies and practices. Furthermore, despite the fact that the refugee crisis produced very small inflows of migrants into the country, it spurred negative attitudes towards refugees (and foreigners in general), encouraged by President Miloš Zeman and Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, who have both taken rather hardline viewpoints against the idea of all EU Member States needing to share equitably in accepting refugees. This atmosphere also contributed to the rise of anti-immigrant political parties and movements. As a result, Czech society has become increasingly polarized. At the EU level, the country is a part of the Visegrad (V4) alliance with Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia, and advocates strong anti-immigration positions in the international arena.
This article focuses on historical and current migration realities in Czechia, putting them into a broader societal context, and discussing the following key themes: labor migration issues, migration and integration policies, attitudes towards immigrants and immigration, international protection, and emigration.
Historical Migration Patterns
Migration has always shaped and transformed the peoples living in the territory of modern Czechia. The first wave of migrants from what is now Germany arrived in the Czech lands in the 13th and 14th centuries. They settled in newly established towns and villages in border areas, and in highlands, playing an important role in Czech lands (Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia) until the end of the 1940s.
Prague was an important Jewish center in Europe for centuries, despite periodic expulsions of Jews; about one-fourth of the city’s population in the first half of the 18th century was Jewish. Although a predominantly Czech city throughout its history, Prague was “Germanized” by the Habsburg administration in the second half of the 18th century, making the German language dominant.
Today’s Czech territory was already under Austrian control when it became part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1867. Between 1850 and 1914, approximately 1.5 million people, most of them agricultural and industrial workers, emigrated first of all to the United States, but also to Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Hungary, Russia, and countries of the former Yugoslavia in search of economic opportunities.
Migration between the Wars
After World War I, the state of Czechoslovakia—consisting of the present-day territories of Czechia, Slovakia, and Carpathian Ruthenia (Carpatho-Ukraine)—was founded as one of the succession states of Austria-Hungary. The new parliamentary democracy established Czech and Slovak as official languages and protected the rights of Germans and other ethnic minorities, allowing them to have educational and cultural institutions.
The census in 1921 recorded the presence of about 3 million ethnic Germans, composing nearly one-third of the population. In the period between the two world wars, more ethnic Germans than Czechs worked in the country’s booming industrial sector, mainly in glass and textiles. Few Germans left Czechoslovakia during this time; their share of the population stood at 29.5 percent in 1930 and 29.2 percent in September 1938.
Between the wars, the second largest, albeit much smaller, ethnic community in Czech lands was Poles, who composed 1 percent (92,689) of the population in 1930. About 44,000 Slovaks also lived in Czech lands at that time.
After the formation of Czechoslovakia, people continued to emigrate for economic and family reunification reasons, mainly to the United States, France, and Germany. This emigration peaked in the early 1920s but continued until the end of the 1930s. Following World War I, 40,000 Czechs returned from the United States and about 100,000 returned from Austria. The arrival of returnees was smaller than the emigration outflows, however, and the country’s population decreased during the interwar period.
Migration in Wartime
In the fall of 1938, in an effort to appease Hitler, European leaders forced Czechoslovakia to cede the Sudetenland, the region where most ethnic Germans lived, to Germany; Poland and Hungary also claimed strategic territory.
In March 1939, Slovakia declared independence and came under the protection of Nazi Germany. Hitler then invaded the Czech lands and proclaimed Bohemia and Moravia a German protectorate; the region remained under Nazi control until the end of World War II in 1945, when pre-war Czechoslovakia was re-established.
Although thousands of Czech Jews escaped, an estimated 80,000 perished in concentration camps. By 1945, just 13,000 Jews remained, and roughly half had emigrated to Israel by 1950.
Between 1945 and 1946, approximately 2.8 million residents of German nationality or heritage (around 25 percent of Czechoslovakia’s population) were expelled, with most returning to Germany. About 1.3 million were sent to the American zone, which later became West Germany, and in a second, more organized wave, 800,000 went to the Soviet zone (later East Germany). During this period, thousands of Germans died due to violence, starvation, and illness.
Germans were only allowed to stay if they could prove they had fought against Nazism or if they came from a Czech-German marriage. According to the 1950 census, only 160,000 Germans remained, just 1.8 percent of the population of 8.9 million.
Migration during the Communist Era
During the communist era (1948-89), highly skilled Czechs and Slovaks continued to leave the country despite the risks involved. It is estimated that more than 550,000 people emigrated. Departure meant breaking all family ties and social networks because those who left were not allowed to return. Emigration was considered a criminal offense; the consequences included confiscation of possessions and sometimes the persecution of relatives.
The two main emigration waves occurred in 1948, when the communists came to power, and in 1968, when the Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies invaded the country. Those leaving headed primarily to Western European countries, in particular Germany, as well as traditional immigrant destinations such as the United States, Canada, and Australia. They were considered refugees and were welcomed in these host societies.
The reasons behind the emigration of highly skilled workers were mostly political and economic. Some people could no longer bear the anti-democratic and totalitarian regimes, while others were dissatisfied with living standards.
Although few people from other communist states permanently settled in Czechoslovakia, temporary workers from countries under Soviet influence—including Angola, Cuba, Vietnam, Mongolia, and Poland—came to gain skills and work experience. At the same time, they filled gaps in the Czech labor market.
This system of recruiting students, apprentices, and workers functioned via intergovernmental agreements and, to a much lesser extent, through individual contracts (mainly with workers from Poland and Yugoslavia). These immigrants usually stayed several years and were involved in sectors such as food processing, textiles, shoe and glass manufacture, machinery, mining, metallurgy, and agriculture.
Migration and Integration Policy Since 1989
After the Velvet Revolution of 1989 that freed Czechoslovakia from Soviet control, the country adopted migration legislation in the early 1990s modeled on legal principles in other democratic, developed countries. Yet these policies and practices regulating the entry and presence of economic migrants were far more liberal than those of most developed countries. In the conversion from communism to modern capitalism, Czech policymakers believed it was better to be quick than thorough.
They signed several readmission agreements concerning asylum seekers, as well as some multilateral and bilateral agreements for the employment of foreigners. They also established cooperation with international institutions dealing with international migration, and successfully implemented a state integration program for refugees, return migrants, and other specific categories of migrants.
Nevertheless, the government’s migration policy did not work well in practice because there were no control mechanisms or coherent and complementary policies. No general goals were defined, and there were no specific preferences made for the economic, demographic, cultural, and geographic background of migrants. This official laissez-faire approach was a testimony to the fact that the politically and economically transforming state had more pressing issues than migration to address.
Towards a Comprehensive Integration Policy
During the 1996-2006 period, policymakers significantly refined migration policies to make them more active and systematic. This was a reaction to rising unemployment and the harmonization of national legislation with EU law. A new Aliens and Asylum Act was adopted in 1999. Moreover, in 1999, the government agreed on Principles of the Foreigners’ Integration in Czechia, and, one year later, the Conception of the Foreigners’ Integration, which defined concrete steps the state would take to integrate immigrants.
In 2003, the government made it easier for specific groups of migrants to gain permanent residency, while also protecting the labor market. This Selection of Qualified Foreign Workers project ran until 2010, bringing in some 3,500 migrants. EU membership in 2004 created a new division for foreign workers: those coming from other EU Member States and third-country nationals. While EU nationals can work freely in Czechia, third-country nationals face demanding administrative and bureaucratic requirements, including labor market tests and the need to obtain visas and work permits.
In 2006, with the amendment of the Conception of the Foreigners’ Integration, Czechia undertook a clear shift toward the civic integration model (as occurred in other countries including the Netherlands, Austria, and Germany). The state defined four priority areas for integration: knowledge of the Czech language, economic self-sufficiency, awareness of the Czech cultural environment, and interactions between foreign residents and Czech society. The policy’s most visible impact: obligatory Czech language tests that became a prerequisite in 2009 for being granted permanent residence.
An enduring problem of the integration policies and practices deriving from the Conception has been that they only target long-term, third-country nationals. Regional integration centers represent an important element of the whole integration system while—among other activites—offering migrants social and juridical counseling, interpretation services, or language and sociocultural courses. Currently, immigrants from EU countries cannot access the broad integration schemes (they can only rely on emergency assistance when in threat of social exclusion or facing other crisis situations related to integration). Asylum seekers and refugees have different integration programs.
Czech Responses to Two Crises
Whereas the era of economic prosperity that immediately followed entry into the European Union (2004-08) was characterized by sizeable inflows of low-skilled foreign workers—whose recruitment was managed by independent agencies—the global economic crisis brought about strong state involvement. The government successfully protected the labor market as much as possible, reducing the number of third-country nationals via several temporary measures: no extension of work permits, an altered visa application process, and a voluntary returns project organized by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
The Syrian refugee crisis revealed how unprepared Europe was to adequately react to massive inflows. Furthermore, Czechia and some other Member States rejected the concept of shared responsibility to accept a proportional redistribution of asylum seekers. The refugee crisis contributed to unprecedented cleavages over immigration and asylum issues among and within individual Member States—as well as many countries outside the European Union.
For Czechia, the refugee crisis aside, the era since 2013 has witnessed a major demand for foreign labor as economic stability and resumed prosperity resulted in many new migrants entering the country. Between 2016 and 2017, the country saw an increase of 90,000 workers, as measured through employee registrations.
Despite its rather reluctant stand towards immigrant integration, in 2014, Czechia introduced the option of dual citizenship by amending its Act on Czech Citizenship. An amendment to the Aliens Act, now under consideration in Parliament after years of design and discussion, may firmly establish the requirement that arriving migrants must attend a one-day, adaptation-integration course during their first year of residence—further strengthening the country’s shift towards the civic integration model.
As elsewhere in Europe, where anti-immigration movements have gained a new toehold, Czechia in recent years has witnessed rising polarization of politics and society around migration issues. In the face of the prevailing public ambivalence, politicians who support more open migration policies have been reluctant to advance their views and less numerous than the opposing side. As a result, recently proposed and adopted policies are based on a security paradigm that is focused on migration control and greater selectivity of immigrants. With Czechia one of just five countries voting against the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration in December 2018, Prime Minister Babiš tweeted: “(We did) as we promised. We are keeping to our strategy against illegal migration. And we won’t accept a single migrant.”
Contemporary Migrant Demographics
More than 524,000 migrants and 4,400 recipients of asylum or other form of protection legally resided in Czechia in 2017. Whereas 53 percent of migrants held a permanent residence permit, the remainder were temporary residents, either third-country nationals or EU Member State-registered nationals and their relatives.
Migrants’ top origin countries have remained stable over time (see Table 1). Forty-two percent came from EU Member States.
Table 1. Top Countries of Citizenship of Permanent and Long-Term Residence Permit Holders in Czechia, 2017
Source: Czech Statistical Office, “Foreigners by Citizenship as at 31 December – Territorial Comparison,” accessed June 1, 2019, available online.
Most migrants come for jobs and opportunity, with 45 percent in 2017 citing employment or entrepreneurship and 20 percent studies as migration motives (some 44,000 foreigners studied at Czech universities). Just 27 percent came for family reasons. As a result of the primacy of work and study reasons for migration, 77 percent are in the economically active age (20-59). Of this age grouping, the younger cohort aged 20 – 39 represents 42 percent of all migrants. In contrast, those over age 65 are just 5 percent of all migrants.
Irregular migration and the economic activities of foreigners in the informal labor market are difficult to ascertain. However, data on detention do exist: In 2017, some 4,700 foreigners were detained when trying to illegally cross the state border (at airports, since Czechia is part of the Schengen area) or without proper documents in the interior; the largest numbers of detainees were individuals with Ukrainian, Russian, or Vietnamese citizenship. Based on field research, it can be assumed that many more foreigners are involved in irregular or quasi-regular economic activities. Others transit through Czechia on their way to other western European countries.
As indicated above, labor migration to Czechia predominates; the result of strong socioeconomic conditions further strengthened by smart policy, applied where necessary and avoided where not. Hence, during the boom years of the Czech economy and its liberal policies (the beginning of 1990, 2004-08, and since 2013) the country experienced sizeable inflows of labor migrants. In times of recession or crisis (the end of the 1990s and between 2009-12), opportunities shrank, and Czechia prevented new foreigners from entering the labor market; many of those who had worked in the country lost their jobs.
In periods of economic prosperity, migration inflows were caused not only by positive economic and labor market conditions and responsive policies, but also by specific features of Czech society. These include a mismatch between labor market needs and the professions of Czech graduates and trainees who leave universities or apprenticeship training; limited geographic mobility; rigid rules hindering flexible employment; and widespread undeclared work. As a result, there has been a strong demand for both skilled and unskilled labor that is not being met through the domestic labor force (see Table 2).
Table 2. Ten Most In-Demand Professions in the Czech Labor Market, Fourth Quarter, 2018
Notes: The demand for these professions represents 257,000 job vacancies.
Source: Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs of the Czech Republic,“Nabídka a poptávka na trhu práce,“ accessed June 1, 2019, available online.
Though the state has adopted—after strong lobbying, mostly by large foreign companies and bodies of associating entrepreneurs—some pro-labor immigration measures (mainly higher quotas for labor migrants from certain non-EU countries), meeting the labor market demand for new workers will be nearly impossible. Some estimate as many as 500,000 new workers will be needed in the coming years.
Some political parties and other segments of society oppose these measures in principle. Moreover, looser immigration positions would require major changes to integration and social policies—and strategic planning—followed by decisions on what kind of migrants are desired, how effectively the country can attract them, and what to do when demand for labor falls. Experts agree that solutions to these issues must also consider the aging Czech population and the development of the economy (which is moving towards automation) and the country’s position on the global economic stage.
Generally, labor migration policies are quite protective of native and EU-origin workers: Czech policy permits a job offer to a third-country national only when no applicant from Czechia or other EU country is available (the so-called labor market test). Nevertheless, there are tools such as work permits, intracompany employee transfers, or trade licenses that enable migrants to work in Czechia under specific conditions. Furthermore, there are some programs that have attempted to open the labor market to a wider mosaic of professions in various sectors, and concern mostly skilled workers. For example, Fast Track; Welcome Package; Regime Ukraine and Regime Other States, which attract highly qualified employees from Ukraine and from Mongolia, the Philippines, and Serbia; and Accelerated Procedure, which provides residence permits for non-EU students.
The number of immigrants allowed to come through these channels has historically been very low, however, and has not met demand. (For example, in 2018, quotas were increased for Ukrainians to 19,600 migrants a year.) Administrative procedures are also complicated and, despite promises to make them more efficient, it can take an average four to six months to obtain necessary documents (e.g. work and residence permits, visa, or employee card). This system is also partly disrupted by bribes or other corrupt practices that circumvent procedures and perpetuate the spread of undeclared or quasi-legal work. For example, there have been reports that Ukrainians are improperly using short-term visas designated for Polish nationals to enter Czechia and its labor market.
Where Migrants Work
Of 472,000 migrant employee contracts registered at labor offices in 2017, 48 percent were in semi-skilled occupations, 31 percent in unskilled work, and the remainder in skilled occupations (see Figure 1 for employment by sector). In addition, 87,000 valid trade licenses were held by migrants. (Individuals may be holders of multiple trade licenses or employment contracts, or both, so these figures should not be understood as representative of the total number of working migrants.)
Figure 1. Migrant Employment by Sector in Czechia, 2017
Source: Czech Statistical Office, “Number of registrations of foreigners at labour offices by CZ-NACE section as at 31 December,” accessed June 1, 2019, available online.
Further, several trends are worth mentioning:
- There is segmentation and specialization in the Czech labor market, and individual immigrant groups have found specific niches. For example, Vietnamese immigrants tend to own small businesses such as food stores or nail shops, while Ukrainians can be found in the construction sector.
- The full value of human capital is often not captured, with tertiary-education migrants arriving with higher education levels than required for their work in the Czech labor market. This underemployment occurs for 45 percent of Ukrainian workers and 21 percent of tertiary-educated migrant workers overall.
- Labor migrants supplement rather than compete with Czech workers, who are less willing to work in unskilled, low-paid occupations (particularly the “3D” dirty, dangerous, and demeaning jobs).
- Companies usually hire foreign workers via recruitment agencies or other mediators. This often leads to the exploitation of migrants in terms of fees and working conditions.
- Just three migrant groups had significant representation among businessmen or trade license holders in 2017: the Vietnamese and Ukrainians, 22,000 each; and Slovaks (17,000).
Popular Perceptions of Immigration and Immigrants
Czechs hold some of the most negative attitudes in the European Union toward immigrants and refugees. According to Eurobarometer surveys from 2015-17, more than 80 percent of Czech respondents expressed negative attitudes toward immigrants, particularly from non-EU countries, during and following the 2015-16 migration crisis. Similar patterns can be observed in the Baltic states, Hungary, Slovakia, Italy, and Bulgaria. While other countries experienced major inflows of refugees (Italy, Hungary, and Bulgaria) or face long-term tensions connected to the presence of an ethnic minority (Baltic states), Czechia and Slovakia stand out as states with very little experience of immigration and that felt insignificant direct impacts from the 2015-16 refugee crisis.
Still, 2015 marked a significant turn in public opinion on migration, immigrants, and refugees in Czechia. Migration suddenly emerged in mainstream media headlines and became a source of polarization. Until then, these topics rarely appeared in the media and public discourse in general—with the exception of the global economic crisis. Prior to then, refugees last represented a hot topic during the 1990s, in connection with the Yugoslav wars and the Chechen crisis. Immigrant integration remains a topic very rarely raised in the public sphere—and less so in a well-informed manner.
Czech public awareness about migration issues has been shown to be below the EU average. Czechs tend to overestimate the numbers of migrants and refugees in the country (often as much as three times higher than reality), in part because of incomplete or biased information presented in the media.
Television is by far the main source of information about migration, according to a representative public survey from 2016 conducted by the MEDIAN research agency. Online sources, articles, and opinions shared by friends and acquaintances via social media (e.g. Facebook) and e-mail are other important sources of information on migration, especially for young people. Websites of official institutions, NGOs, and academic sources are rarely used. The rise and popularity of websites that spread disinformation and stir hatred toward specific groups of migrants and institutions, organizations, and supporters is also notable. For instance, ParlamentníListy.cz regularly shocks with headlines such as “The Migration Crisis Was Intentionally Set Afoot by (Western Liberal Leftist) Elites with the Intention to Change the Composition of the European Population.”
Biased views and the lack of public knowledge about migration issues can be largely, though not exclusively, credited to their coverage in the media. A media analysis conducted in 2015 at Masaryk University found this coverage primarily focused on events in Europe (especially during the migration crisis); political debates about the crisis, including the question of refugee quotas; and security topics. Less coverage was given to the causes of the crisis, the situation of refugees themselves, or migrants already living in Czechia. Most of the media overwhelmingly portrayed migration as a security issue rather than a humanitarian or social one. The media language was also found to include dehumanizing expressions to describe the movement of refugees. The migration crisis was commonly referred to as “tsunami” or “invasion,” while refugees were described as objects that are “crammed” or “jammed” and must be “captured” and “placed” somewhere.
Media coverage has thus contributed to the process of narrowing public debate to an almost exclusive focus on asylum seekers (a minority among all migrants in Czechia), as well as abetting a sharp polarization and insults. The highest representatives of the state, including President Zeman and Prime Minister Babiš, have made critical remarks about immigration. For example, Zeman in 2015 warned against accepting Muslim refugees, claiming they “will have the right of sharia, meaning that unfaithful women will be stoned and thiefs will have their hands cut off… We will forfeit the beauty of women, because they will be covered in burkas from head to toe.” The tenor of the debate was also shaped by newly formed right-wing populist movements. And particularly in the first months of the refugee crisis, arguments from both sides of the debate that were formulated constructively were silenced or ignored.
Refugees and International Protection
Czechia is not traditionally an asylum country. The number of asylum applications filed and granted in Czechia, compared to other EU states, has been low, in part because of its strict international protection policies and geographical location as a landlocked country.
The country received more asylum applications in the years preceding its 2004 EU accession. Between 1999 and 2004, some 77,330 foreigners requested asylum; less than 2,600 (3.3 percent) were approved. More than 18,000 applications were filed in 2001, the year with the highest increase. Ukrainian economic migrants represented a significant share, taking advantage of a temporary legislative change that allowed asylum seekers to stay in the Czech territory until a decision was made, and—for a short time—to immediately enter the labor market. This misuse of the asylum-seeker status by economic migrants, common during the 1990s, contributed to discrediting the asylum system in the eyes of the Czech population and authorities. In following years, the number of applications fell again. In 2004, just 5,459 people filed asylum applications, a significant decrease from the 11,400 filed in 2003. Czechia’s EU accession on May 1, 2004 was the main reason for the decline. As of that date, the country began returning asylum seekers, in accordance with the Dublin Convention, to the first EU country they entered.
Granting Asylum since 2008
Asylum filings gradually decreased due to the resumed tightening of asylum legislation, Czechia’s growing unpopularity as an asylum destination, and the impact of the global economic crisis. New asylum seekers also preferred the “old” EU Member States due to higher living standards and pre-existing social ties in those countries. In 2013, an estimated 700 applications were submitted. Although the number rose to more than 1,100 applications in 2014 and approximately 1,500 applications per year in 2015-17, the increase was modest and not comprised of asylum seekers from Syria, the Middle East, and North Africa.
The share of asylum grants is extremely low, fluctuating between 29 and 268 individuals in the years 2000-17. The drop to 29 grants in 2017 reflects the rise of anti-migration feelings and rhetoric during the crisis. On average, subsidiary (time-limited) protection tends to be granted more often than permanent asylum. As with asylum, the number has fluctuated significantly over the years.
The largest number of asylum applications in 2017 came from Ukraine (435), followed by Armenia and Georgia (129 each), and Azerbaijan (127). The composition, which roughly replicates a long-term trend, reflects Czechia’s enduring ties to the countries of the former Soviet bloc, especially Ukraine, which produced many refugees in recent years as a result of the Russian annexation of Crimea. The impact of the conflicts in the Middle East on the Czech intake of refugees has been minor.
At the end of 2017, there were slightly fewer than 2,700 asylum holders and some 1,700 subsidiary-protection recipients in Czechia. The most common nationalities were Syrian (more than 400 asylum holders and almost 500 holders of subsidiary protection) and Ukrainian (more than 400 asylum holders and 250 holders of subsidiary protection).
Emigration from Czechia
As of 2017, some 960,000 Czech citizens lived abroad, most having left Czechia after regime change in the 1990s, and especially after the 2004 EU accession. These emigrants are part of a much larger diaspora of those abroad who claim Czech origins or ancestry, sometimes going back centuries. As of 2012, the Czech diaspora totaled approximately 2.5 million people. Czechia is thus not a major migrant-sending country, but its international diaspora is worth mentioning.
Key destinations for Czech migrants and the broader diaspora include the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. According to U.S. census data, more than 1.6 million U.S. residents claimed to have Czech or, to a much lesser extent, Czechoslovak ancestry in 2006. In Canada, some 105,000 and 40,000 people had Czech and Czechoslovak origins, respectively, in 2016. The United Kingdom has both historically and recently been the largest recipient of Czech and Czechoslovak migrants within the European Union and Europe. In 2017, approximately 55,000 UK inhabitants were born in Czechia (49,000 had Czech nationality).
Germany and Austria are two other important EU destinations, both with more than 50,000 Czech inhabitants. In Slovakia, 35,000 people claim Czech as their mother tongue. This is primarily due to Czechia’s long coexistence with Slovakia as a single state, which enabled significant migration in both directions. As with all migration within Europe, it remains to be seen what pattern changes will be brought about by Brexit.
The reasons for emigration have changed throughout time. Economic motives have always prevailed and remain so today. However, as mentioned above, especially before and during the World Wars and during the communist period of 1948-89, political reasons were the key drivers of the Czech people’s outward mobility, which often took the form of unauthorized escape. Since the 1990s, and since Czechia’s accession to the European Union, people are increasingly migrating (often temporarily) in order to pursue studies abroad.
The few studies that have analyzed Czech emigration show that many Czech migrants prefer temporary mobility targeted at the accumulation of financial capital, language skills, or international experience to be used for one’s social or economic mobility in Czechia upon return. Although data are lacking, it is assumed that temporary migration extending from a few months to a couple of years forms a large part of Czech international mobility.
The Czech(oslovak) diaspora has a long tradition of establishing local organizations that helped emigrants in times when contact with the homeland was scarce due to political or other reasons. These organizations also functioned as a way for Czechs to stay in touch with compatriots abroad and maintain some connection to their mother language and culture. Many of the historic diaspora organizations are still active, functioning as meeting hotspots, bearers of old traditions, and documenters of history. In the past 30 years, however, new organizations have been founded by recent emigrants, with the primary purpose of maintaining their children’s knowledge of the Czech language and history. Many of them are part of a gradually formed worldwide network of semi-informal Czech schools abroad.
The democratic governments of Czechia since the 1990s have maintained links with both the historical and newly established diaspora organizations and emigrants, supporting many through cultural and educational funding programs and giving them visibility through public events, conferences, and award ceremonies. Apart from that, however, the state’s contact with, and support of, the diaspora, in the political sphere or regarding return migration policies has been limited.
Facing New Challenges
Existing global and regional challenges, including population decline in absolute terms (were it not for immigration) and an aging population, have significantly influenced Czechia’s migration reality (see Figure 2). Politically, strains within EU Member States over migration and at a global level economic, political, and other inequalities between poorer and richer countries that spur migration will, of course, challenge Czechia as well.
Figure 2. Population Growth and Decline Due to Domestic Changes and Migration, 2002-18
Source: Czech Statistical Office, “Vital Statistics of the Czech Lands*: 2002–2017, absolute figures,” accessed May 30, 2019, available online.
In addition, the country’s approach to economic migration is not systematically managed, and the existing policies and practices are last-gasp, reactive attempts to repair a situation that has already happened. Experts agree of the necessity for policymakers to develop strategies to encompass all types of incoming migration flows (economic, family, student, refugee, and other)—not just the ones that desired by employers. It will also be necessary to ensure that all groups of migrants are incorporated into Czech society. Despite partial successes in the field of integration (such as regional integration centers), Czech integration policy still lacks services on the local level, nor does it target all types of migrants in various life situations.
The country remains strongly polarized about migration, and the louder opinions tend to be anti-migration and populist—despite the fact that asylum-seeker and refugee inflows that stir the most emotional reactions remain very low. Accordingly, there is a growing need for more rational and evidence-based arguments to buttress public debate about migration in Czechia, to ensure that migration works for all elements of the Czech economy and society, and that the country can fulfil its responsibilities vis-a-vis the European Union.
The authors would like to thank Vít Bořil, Dwight Ledet, and Jonáš Suchánek for their contributions to this article.
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