Foreigners legally residing in the Czech Republic―permanent residents or people with long-term visas―represent less than 5% of the Czech population, at an estimated number of 436,000. Naturalized citizens and refugees account for a tiny fraction of the total. The percentage of foreigners that makes up its population is about half of that of the Czech Republic’s Western European neighbors. In the East, both Poland and Slovakia record higher numbers of immigrants, suggesting that the Czech Republic may be closed to foreigners.
Number of visas granted yearly in decline
The number of permanent residents and long-term stays is on the rise according to the Czech Statistical Office (For the purpose of this article, a “long-term stay” is considered any official residential permit above 90 days but not permanent.) From 1993, there has been a six-fold increase in migrants with both categories growing by around this factor. Long-term stays saw the fastest growth, which makes sense as for most people it is the most accessible means of residency in the Czech Republic.
In 2007 a big jump in long-term stays came when the Czech Republic joined the Schengen Zone. Since then, the number has not changed much. Because the total doesn’t differentiate between extensions and new applicants, the numbers alone don’t show if the population is static, added to with a few new arrivals, or if there is a large turn over with large numbers of new stays replacing people leaving.
It is more than likely the former because the number of visas granted has sharply declined since 2009 (link in Czech), especially for two of the largest minority communities in the Czech Republic, Ukrainians and Vietnamese. The number of granted visas went from 26,511 to 3,172 and 10,211 to 838 respectively from 2007 to 2011. However, the extent that this is a tightening up of visas is hard to say because Vietnamese applicants would probably have also found it harder to apply after the Czech consulate in Hanoi was closed from 2008 and 2009. Following 2009, the global financial crisis appears to be the main reason given for the more recent steep decline.
Even if the number of migrants has risen, the visa-granting process is lengthy and generally considered unpleasant. The slightest mistake in paperwork can require another visit and another wait. A certain amount of “gate-keeping” could be accepted. However, the duration and the attitude of some officials make the experience on the whole unwelcoming.
Myriad challenges to becoming permanent
In 2006 becoming permanent was reduced to 5 years from 10. Two years later, the number of permanent residents jumped slightly. Since 2009, the growth has been in increments of a few thousand. A tapering off of new permanent residents suggests that shortening the minimum period wasn’t enough to make the country open.
As far as becoming a Czech citizen, the numbers of people doing so are significantly smaller. In 2008, 1,190 people out of 1,837 were granted citizenship. The following year and the year after that the number of new citizens dipped to 1,128 and still farther to 1,088. The year 2011 saw an increase of almost 600 new citizens. (Figures provided by the Ministry of the Interior.)
When we look back, we can see the general trend from 2001 has been a gradual decline with an increase in 2004. The increase was, according to Vladimír Řepka spokesperson for the Ministry of the Interior due to an amendment in 2003 which simplified the application process for Slovak nationals. For non-Slovak applicants the numbers remain low.
“People with permanent residency do not show much enthusiasm for applying for citizenship. The reason for that is it’s a quite difficult and expensive process,” said Marie Jelínková from the Association for Integration and Migration. The cost is approximately 10,000 CZK. Perceived lack of transparency in the decision-making process is another complaint, as is the fact that people are required to give up their current citizenship, though the latter may change in propose legislation.
“Of course it’s the right of the state to grant or not to grant citizenship but sometimes [applicants] don’t get it for reasons which are not stated,” she said.
One story highlights arbitrary nature of system
Selma Muhic Dizdarevic, a lecturer in Public and Social Policy at Charles University, came to the Czech Republic from the former Yugoslavia. She had her application for citizenship rejected on the grounds that the company she owned at the time had not paid tax. There was good reason. The company hadn’t earned enough money.
“In six months I applied again and this time because I was involved in this NGO and I worked at the university, there were lots of people who knew about [my application] so they wrote and then [the ministry] changed their mind. All the facts remained the same but this time their reaction was positive,” she said.
In some cases, children born to foreign nationals can live here their whole or most of their lives, attend school, and converse predominantly in Czech but still have to apply for citizenship. Such applicants aren’t always successful. Ms. Muhic Dizdarevic offered as an example a young Bosnian man who had lived in the Czech Republic from the age of four and spoke Czech as his first language. He was denied because he had studied for a time in the UK.
“While in the case of Czech citizens it is seen as building their education, and so on, in the case of this young man he was rejected because it showed he wants to live somewhere else,” she said.
Not many seek refuge here
The number of refugees is even smaller. In 2011, 753 people applied for asylum status and only 41 were granted it. The largest single number of people who received asylum was in 2006―which was 268 people from 3,016. Even when applications peaked in 2001 with 18,094, acceptance remained low.
Since joining the EU, applications dropped farther. The Dublin Convention is one significant reason. The convention allows refugees to apply for asylum in only one EU nation, usually the one in which they arrive. The Czech Republic was not the first choice for many for a number of reasons: their own communities are small; the process is seen as long and unreliable, and integration is complicated.
Numbers are only part of the story. Dr. Martin Rozumek, director of The Organization for Refugee Assistance (Organizace pro Pomoc Uprchlíkům) described the human toll the experience takes.
“We see people waiting year after year. The end isn’t getting closer. The first year work is prohibited. It drags their mental state down terribly. In a couple of years they are an absolutely crushed individual.”
Institutionalized xenophobia to blame?
Given the lower rates of citizenship and refugee application compared with other Western democracies, the question is whether there is a policy to keep migrants out.
Mr. Řepka said that the Ministry does not regard itself as restrictive when compared to other EU states. He also stressed that the trend of the proportion of applicants has grown. However, this result may have more to do with the significant drop in applications.
Ms. Jelínková said xenophobia may play some role. “Czechs tend to prefer a more homogenous society,” she said. However, she believed a certain legal approach was at play too. “The spirit of law is usually not taken as the most important.”
Regarding the future, a new Foreigners’ Residency Act is being discussed. All of the individuals we spoke with expressed concern about it, believing that the newly proposed law will make entry increasingly difficult. The Ministry does not agree.
We will be following this new law and updating this article with the latest developments.