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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.
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.