Last week, we argued in this column that the Czech Republic might be approaching Western political standards by using the politics of smear in election campaigns. There is one other area in which the Czech Republic is becoming very "Western" - in its approach to foreigners. The country seems to have adopted a hostile, bureaucratic attitude both to refugees and to students from non-Western countries.
The countries of the European Union - especially Britain - are now often criticised for adopting the "Fortress Europe" attitude towards people from the outside world. This attitude is probably rather short-sighted because, as the Economist has recently pointed out, due to the aging European population, Europe will require as many as 13.5 million immigrants annually if the ratio of the working population to pensioners is to remain as it is today. Yet the Czech Republic seems to be aping the hostile attitude of the European Union towards people from elsewhere.
Do not ask for asylum in the Czech Republic
The Czech Republic is rather unfriendly towards applicants for asylum. As was reported a few weeks ago, 31 individuals were granted political asylum in the Czech Republic in January - March 2000. As it has been pointed out, individuals who apply for political asylum in countries like the Czech Republic are much more "genuine" applicants than those who apply for asylum for instance in Great Britain or in Germany: the Czech Republic is a much less affluent country and the social provisions for asylum seekers are usually much less than in the countries of the European Union.
These 31 refugees included four Africans, one Belorussian, one Yugoslav and one Romanian. In March 2000, the Czech authorities turned down 100 applications for asylum. 2044 applications for asylum remained unprocessed at the end of March 2000 in the Czech Republic. 513 individuals applied for asylum in the Czech Republic: 102 of them were from Sri Lanka, 73 from Afghanistan, 50 from Chechnya and 40 from India. In January-February 2000, 976 individuals from 43 countries applied for asylum in the Czech Republic. Most of them - 273 individuals - came from Afghanistan.
Oppression in Afghanistan is really serious and the question arises why it is that the Czech Republic does not seem to have granted asylum to a single person from this unfortunate country. An official from the Czech government office for human rights has expressed suspicion that asylum is often granted to applicants in the Czech Republic on the basis of bribes. Under such circumstances, said this official, poor people from countries suffering real oppression usually do not stand a chance.
Is it wise doing your postgraduate degree in Prague - especially if you are from China?
Foreign students in Prague also seem to experience difficulties. Last week, Britské listy featured the case of a Chinese postgraduate student who started working on his PhD at the Geophysical institute in Prague. After a few months in Prague, he needed to visit China. Since then, he has not been able to come back. The Czech authorities seem to be just as obstructive in cases such as these as, for instance, the British authorities - if not more.
Here is a letter that Dr Ivan Pšenčík of the Czech Academy of Sciences, the PhD supervisor of the Chinese student, wrote to Dr Junek, a Czech Foreign Ministry Official at the beginning of April 2000, after many letters to the Czech Embassy in Beijing failed to have any desired effect. (Dr Junek never received the letter because the Foreign Ministry lost it.)
Dear Sir, My student's name is Xuyao Zheng, he was born in the city of Pingdingshan in China on 14 July 1955. In September - December 1998, Mr Zheng was on a three-month study stay at the Geophysical Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague. During this stay, he proved himself to be a very capable and hard working individual and so, when he asked me at what university in Western Europe he could apply for postgraduate study, I said that he could do his PhD at our institute.
Mr Zheng agreed, although I openly told him that we could provide him only with very limited subsistence. I have not told Mr Zheng that he might have problems with the Czech bureaucracy (my mistake), although I had already experienced difficulties in this respect. (Some time ago, another Chinese student who wanted to study at our Institute was put off by bureaucratic obstacles placed in his way by the Czech authorities and opted for study at the prestigious Australian National University.)
It is a great success for us to find a PhD student like Mr Zheng. Czech students of geophysics, of whom there are now very few, prefer, understandably, to study abroad. On 24 June 1999 Mr Zeng was enrolled for PhD study at Charles University, Prague, in the field of geophysics. I am his supervisor and the Geophysical Institute of the Czech Academy of Science is his place of study.
I will not describe how difficult it was for Mr Zeng to be granted a Czech visa - eventually, the Chairman of the Czech Academy of Sciences, Professor Zahradník needed to intercede. I will concentrate on the current problem.
At the end of 1999, it became obvious that Mr Zeng would have to go back to China for several weeks' holiday. There were several reasons for this: there were family reasons, Mr Zheng's passport was running out as well as his Czech visa (which was valid until 29 February 2000). Another reason for needing to return to China was the fact that as of January 2000, Czech visas are now issued only by Czech Embassies abroad.
Mr Zheng travelled to China at the end of January 2000. On 21 February, he received a new passport from the Chinese authorities and on the same day, the Director of the Geophysical Institute and myself informed the Czech Embassy in Peking that Mr Zheng would call there with a Czech visa application. We told the Embassy that Mr Zheng was a full time PhD student at our Institute.
Mr Zheng contacted the Czech Embassy first by telephone on 25 February (he lives in the city of Zheng Zhou in the Hennan Province, some 2 hours by plane from Beijing). On the basis of this telephone call he faxed the Czech Embassy on the very same day his Certificate of Enrolment for Study at Charles University in Prague, his old visa, his Charles University student card, a certificate that he receives a student grant in the Czech Republic, a certificate of accommodation in Prague, a certificate of no criminal record and a health insurance certificate.
On 1 March, Mr Zheng personally made a call at the Czech Embassy in Beijing. Embassy Official Dr Matoušovic received his visa application from him and told him that the visa might be ready on 8 March. On 8 March a Beijing colleague of Mr Zheng's went to pick up the visa but was told that Mr Zeng must make an entirely new application. By this time, I had contacted the Embassy several times, supporting Mr Zeng's application.
It is unclear to me why Mr Zheng was not informed during his visit at the Czech Embassy on 1 March that his application could not be accepted. On 13 March, Mr Zheng flew to Beijing again to make a new visa application. He handed over all his documents, including a certificate of no criminal record from the Czech Interior Ministry in Prague, which expires on 31 May, 2000. He was also asked for a certificate of no criminal record issued by the Chinese authorities.
So Mr Zheng applied to the Chinese Foreign Ministry for this certificate. It unfortunately took three weeks for the certificate to be issued. On 6th April at 9.40 am Mr Zheng's colleague went to hand in the required certificate to the Czech Embassy officials, but unfortunately, the Embassy was closed. He will try to hand the certificate over again on Monday 10 April.
Dear Dr Junek, if I were Mr Zheng, I would lose my interest in study in the Czech Republic and would try to do my research in some civilised country. You told me last Friday that it is quite possible that Mr Zheng will have to wait for his visa for 180 days and that it is not certain whether he will be granted it. Mr Zheng's research time is being wasted. We have been forced to cancel a joint lecture we had planned with Mr Zheng for an international conference and we will have to cancel also our joint lecture for a conference, due to be held at the beginning of June.
I fully understand that the Czech Republic wants to keep out immigrants. Although this is often immoral, practically every European country does this. I am not sure, however, whether the same hostile attitude should be used against foreign visitors whose stay in the Czech Republic has been guaranteed by a state institution and whose work is beneficial to the Czech Republic.
A number of faxes were exchanged between the Czech Embassy in Beijing and the Geophysical Institute in Prague. The interchange stopped when Dr Pšenčík asked the Czech authorities at the Embassy in Beijing and at the Foreign Ministry in Prague who would pay for Mr Zheng's air ticket for travel between Beijing and Prague, as the air ticket had expired as a result of the delaying tactics by the Czech authorities.
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Is there any hope that the Czech authorities might react in any meaningful way in this case? The current Czech social democratic government has recently introduced a Freedom of Information Act. On the basis of this act, members of the Czech civil service are dutybound to answer citizens' queries within a reasonable period of time.
Britské listy put this act to the test not only in the case of Chinese student Zheng but also in one other matter. A Britské listy correspondent asked the Office of the Czech Government why Karel Březina, a recently appointed member of the government, has never done his national service. His repeated requests for an explanation were ignored and when the correspondence was published in Britské listy last week, the official in question, one Jindřich Marek, reacted by releasing a spate of abusive e-mails.
When Britské listy approached Libor Rouček, the Press Officer of the Czech Government, asking him whether he regarded the abusive e-mail missives, coming from his office, as professional, whether Mr Marek was paid by the government and what his pay was, the reaction was silence.
Is the Czech Republic fair towards applicants for asylum?
Jan Jařab wrote in an article, published in Britské listy here that in 1993, 2207 individuals applied for asylum in the Czech Republic and the asylum status was granted to 251 persons. In 1999, more than 6000 people applied for asylum in the Czech Republic, and the asylum was granted to some 70 individuals. Most applicants for asylum in the Czech Republic come from countries in desperate situations - from Afghanistan, Somalia, Angola ad Sri Lanka.
Most of their applications for asylum are turned down because these refugees cannot provide concrete evidence of persecution. The Czech Republic even turns down applicants from Afghanistan, Cuba and Iraq whose relatives have received asylum in the West, although they could not prove individual persecution.
If people who have been refused asylum in the Czech Republic do not have valid travel documents, they cannot even leave the country. The only thing they can do is to keep applying for asylum over and over again. Thus in practice, the only way out of a vacuum in the Czech Republic for the refugees whose application for asylum has been turned down is to attempt illegally to cross the borders into Germany.
Paradoxically, the Czech Republic is now preparing a law according to which it will pursue individuals who will attempt to cross the border into Germany with increased intensity, reminiscent of the times of the Iron Curtain. And yet, the Czech legal system in effect tells the rejected refugees that they must attempt to cross the border to Germany illegally: there is no other way out for them.
Jan Čulík, 29 May 2000
The author is the publisher of the Czech Internet daily Britské listy.