Prague, Czech Republic – Hostility towards foreigners, immigrants and ethnic minorities is on the rise in the Czech lands. Although this is far from being a new phenomenon, the Czech Republic was in the past mainly characterized by a kind of lukewarm xenophobia, always there but hidden under the surface, passive, silent. That’s not the case anymore.
Kafkadesk has decided to dedicate a series of articles on this hotly-debated topic. The first article provided an overview of the minorities and foreign-born population established in the country. Now, let’s dive right into it: meet the resistance opposing the wave of xenophobia.
A creeping xenophobia deeply rooted in Czech society
Objective factors fail to account for the Czech population’s strong xenophobic feelings. The country’s conservativeness when it comes to foreigners remains rather mysterious for citizens who otherwise display strong liberal views on other controversial issues like abortion or same-sex marriage. The “crusade to defend the Judeo-Christian West” argument doesn’t make much sense in one of the world’s most secular countries, nor does the desire to protect the labour market can have any real weight in an economy boasting the lowest unemployment rate in Europe. Even racial purity is not a strong idea in the Czech lands, as it may be in other neighboring countries.
Academics, experts and internet users have been tearing their hair out over the issue for many years. The most widespread explanation is historical: the Czech Republic has simply lost the habit of multiculturalism, especially after the expulsion of ethnic Germans and Hungarians from Czechoslovakia after the war. Four decades spent behind the Iron curtain only made prejudices worse. But that fails to explain, for instance, why the Vietnamese community has been fairly well integrated. Jan Gross, a Polish-born historian and author of the controversial Neighbors, argued that Central European countries’ refusal to accept refugees is caused by the fact that they, contrary to Germany, have “yet to come to term with their murderous past” and role in the extermination of Jews and other ethnic minorities during the war.
The studies demonstrating Czechs’ hostility towards non-Czechs are plentiful. Moreover, anyone might be a witness (or victim) of it on a daily-basis roaming the streets of any city – including Prague, which may not be the liberal haven a lot of people make it out to be. And while some are right when they claim that we shouldn’t “mistake poor customer service with xenophobia”, nor grouchiness with racial hatred, that argument may apply to white Caucasian expats put off by Czechs’ coldness and grumpiness. It disregards, however, widespread discrimination and verbal or physical abuse targeting Roma, Asians and Muslims.
Whatever the reasons, it worked, and these stigmas are now engraved in their minds. Literally. Harvard’s University “Project implicit” study, spanning over 15 years, has shown that Czechs had the strongest implicit racial bias against black-skinned people in Europe and were the quickest to associate blackness with concepts such as “bad” and “evil” (see map below).
The refugee crisis: a turning point
And then, the refugee crisis came, the great cathartic catalyst that allowed politicians, newsrooms and ordinary citizens to unleash their bottled-up rage and anger against the wave of migrants and asylum-seekers. As famously illustrated by a recent cartoon, a few years before, an ordinary Czech would have said ‘I am not racist, but…’. Now, he would say ‘I am a racist, so what?’”.
To be perfectly fair, asylum applications did reach a peak in 2015… with 1.235 first-time applicants, according to Eurostat. I’ve known bigger wave. Last year, 1.140 people applied for international protection in the country (out of 650.000 in the EU), and most of them came from Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia – Syrian applicants only came at the 5th place. A whooping total of 150 migrants were granted asylum.
The fact that these demonized asylum-seekers actually failed to show up doesn’t matter one bit: “No one has invited you”, Czech President Milos Zeman said, sounding like the host of a party scolding imaginary party crashers. But “a skilled politician is never short of solutions”, as Ivana Smolenova argued in Visegrad Insight, and Czech fear-mongering experts managed to depict Islam as a murderous and criminal ideology that threatens the very foundations of the Czech Republic’s national identity. “Czechs like beer and pork”, Masaryk University professor Miroslav Marek cunningly pointed out; and in the minds of many, this encapsulates the essence of why Muslims just can’t stay in the country.
Led by the outbursts of former Social democratic Prime Minister turned populist President Milos Zeman, seconded in his task by unlikely far-right, nativist leader of Czech, Japanese and Korean descent Tomio Okamura, and supported by the silent obedience or active participation of almost the entire political class, including the left, dutiful local media and “alternative” fake news websites, xenophobia and racism were given carte blanche and became mainstream. This period also saw the rise of anti-immigrant activist Martin Konvicka and his “Block against Islam” who, among other joyful festivities, organized a fake ISIL invasion on Prague’s Old Town Square supplemented by a mock beheading.
Although more in-depth research shows that Czechs actually consider immigration to be a minor issue in their lives, the monopolization of the public debate on that issue has made them adopt increasingly radical and hostile positions against asylum-seekers, whom they dismiss as economic migrants rather than refugees fleeing war-torn countries. Real economic migrants – both “capital foreigners” from the West and “close foreigners” from the East – are those they actually don’t seem to have any real problem with.
Those standing against the wave
Few people have the political stamina or moral courage to stand up against this outpouring of xenophobia. But some do. At the height of the refugee crisis, Initiative Hlavak (Railway station initiative) started operating out of the central station in Prague to assist individuals who had been released from detention camps, planned to transit to another country or wished to apply for asylum in the Czech Republic. Another notable civil society initiative is known as the Czech team: it started out as a small-scale initiative from a group of people who traveled to the Hungarian-Serbian border to help refugees and grew to be one of the main organized efforts to provide assistance to asylum-seekers crossing through the Balkans and Central Europe.
Isn’t all this, however, just a scratch on the surface? Providing much-needed help to migrants and asylum-seekers but failing the address the core issue at the heart of the problem: Czechs’ hostility towards foreigners and people from other ethnic backgrounds? That’s when I stumbled on an intriguing program organized by Slovo 21, a Czech organization dealing in the integration of Romani and third-country nationals.
“Next Door Family” is a project that connects Czech and third-country families for a lunch held at one of the participant’s home, so they can, well, simply get to know one another through discussions and exchanges (“slovo” means “word” in Czech). The idea is simple, and yet incredibly powerful: “Face-to-face meetings are a hundred times more effective than all the seminars and conferences in the world”, Slovo 21 director Jelena Silajzdic told me when I met them in their Prague office.
But it’s not an easy feat: while many foreigners are scared, Czechs are also reluctant to engage in such activities. And although local families might be more open to meet people from Ukraine or ex-Yugoslavia for instance, persuading them to have lunch with immigrants from the Middle East can be hard to accomplish. Needless to say, the initiative wouldn’t be in its 15th running year if it didn’t prove successful: “Nearly half – 43% to be precise – of the families meet again after their first encounter”, Monika Peulić, a project coordinator for the organization, told me.
‘Next Door Family’ is only one of Slovo 21’s many projects. The association also organizes the Khomora Festival, one of the most popular festivals centered around Roma culture in the country. They also organize ‘Welcome to the Czech Republic’, an integration program conducted by social workers and experts in intercultural management designed to smooth the integration of newcomers.
How did people, who have been working on a daily-basis on these issues for over a decade, see the recent developments in the country? As it turns out, not that well. Jelena Silajzdic pointed out that “it is getting harder and harder every year” to find participants for their ‘Next Door Family’ program. “Czechs don’t want their neighbors or close ones to know they’re doing something like that”, she said, “and the mentality will only get worse”. On Czechs’ hostility towards people from different ethnic backgrounds, she was also quite clear: “Before, they didn’t like them. Now, they hate them”. “The Czech Republic has no political, artistic or cultural avant-garde to promote and defend a more open mindset. Even though young people might not be as closed-minded as their elders, they remain very influenceable” to mainstream rhetoric.
Members of Slovo 21, who closely cooperate with other organizations dealing in Roma integration gathered within the Romanonet network, also believe that the situation for the Czech Republic’s largest ethnic minority “is worse than before”. “They just don’t have the same start line”, they highlighted, pointing to the countless discrimination they face in all areas of life.
Considering current developments in neighboring countries like Hungary, I was curious to know if they feared the Czech Republic might follow, sooner or later, a similar path. “Support and funding for Slovo 21’s activities from institutional and governmental partners actually increased”, Ms. Silajzdic said, which is not insignificant when private sponsors are more than reluctant, for PR purposes, to publicly support this kind of activity. After a pause, she added: “But yes, we are receiving more and more ‘routine’ controls from local authorities”. Although comparing Hungary and the Czech Republic on this matter would be ill-advised, “that might be a sign”, she concluded sullenly.
A sign that nevertheless won’t keep organizations like Slovo 21 from working tirelessly to fight anti-foreigner stigmas and tackle xenophobia and racism where and how it should be tackled: at the root, head-on.