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Change in tone

Ian Willoughby, PragueSeptember 4, 2015

Anti-refugee rhetoric has been vociferous in the relatively homogenous Czech Republic, but the tide of public opinion may now be turning. Ian Willoughby reports from Prague.

Police oversee protest against refugee quotas by far-right youth and supporters of refugees in Brno
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/CTK Photo/V. Salek

"Nobody invited you - if you don't like it here, leave." That was the recent message to migrants from the Czech Republic's blunt-talking president, Milos Zeman. He has also warned that the current wave of refugees could include jihadists who would "blow up Prague Castle" and talked up the idea of sending thousands of Czech Army troops to guard the country's borders against asylum-seekers.

Zeman's views evidently chime with those of many ordinary voters. A recent opinion poll in the ex-communist Czech Republic, which has few ethnic minorities, suggested 94 percent believe the European Union ought to send illegal migrants back to where they came from.

Stoking such sentiment have been marginal political groups. In July one captured national headlines for an anti-immigration rally on Prague's Wenceslas Square at which hangman's nooses - symbolically intended for "traitor" pro-migrant politicians - were brandished.

There have been a number of anti-migrant, and specifically anti-Muslim, campaigns on the Czech Internet. The group behind one, entitled "We Don't Want Islam in the Czech Republic," presented to parliament a petition against EU-backed migrant quotas signed by 145,000 people.

"These people are using lies and spread manipulated and false information on social media in order to create fear among the population and score cheap political points," says Hassan Mezian, a Syrian-born senator who is the Czech Republic's sole Muslim legislator.

Mainstream politicians reticent

Mainstream Czech parties have not been particularly vocal on the migration issue. There have been no Angela Merkel-style proclamations of zero tolerance for racial hatred from prominent members of the government.

"I think Czech politicians are afraid that they wouldn't win the next elections if they speak too much about migration," says Magda Faltova, head of the non-profit Association for Integration and Migration. "It's a difficult topic to explain."

Milos Zeman
President Zeman is well-known for making controversial statementsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

It is perhaps puzzling that so many Czechs seem to be opposed to refugees, given that so few of them, relatively speaking, are interested in settling in their country. In fact, fewer than 900 have applied for asylum there so far this year. Around 30 have been accepted.

"Part of the problem is that many Czechs, and not just older ones, don't know any foreigner in person - not only a refugee, but any foreigner," says lawyer Hana Frankova of the Organization for Aid to Refugees.

Frankova also says Czech officials have somewhat exacerbated the situation by presenting the refugee crisis as a security issue rather than a humanitarian one.

Inked numbers spark outrage

On Monday night Czech police detained a "record" 214 illegal migrants on a train from Austria and Hungary crossing the border at the south Moravian border town of Breclav. They used indelible markers to write numbers on the wrists and arms of the men, women and children before packing them onto buses.

The police said it was a one-off measure aimed at helping them keep family groups together in a chaotic situation. But many were deeply disturbed by the move, including Hassan Mezian.

"It makes me want to throw up," says the Damascus-born politician. "It reminds me of concentration camps and people being given numbers because of their deportation to the gas chambers."

A Czech police officer writes a number on the skin of a refugee in Breclav
There was an international outcry over refugees' skins being marked by Czech authoritiesImage: Reuters/I. Zehl

Following a wave of domestic and international criticism the Ministry of the Interior announced that police would not employ this approach again.

In any case, they are now less likely to need to. Following Germany's announcement of an open-door policy for refugees from Syria the Czech government said on Wednesday that it would allow them to freely cross its territory on their journey west. This brings to an end a practice of forcing such migrants into detention facilities that lawyer Hana Frankova says are nothing less than prisons.

Changing mood

Coinciding with this major change in policy there has been something of a pushback against anti-migrant rhetoric, spearheaded by a recent petition signed by over 1,300 Czech academics condemning growing xenophobia and intolerance.

Images of Syrian families with small children being led off the train in Breclav have also had an impact on public opinion, according to NGO official Magda Faltova.

"People have been moved by what they've seen. They understand that these people are in need of protection and that they are not a threat to them," says Faltova. "I think the atmosphere is really changing - we are now getting more positive reactions than negative."

Indeed Czech NGOs working with migrants have in recent days seen unprecedented support from the public. Increasing numbers have offered to take asylum-seekers into their homes, some are ferrying necessities to Budapest and many have used clothing collections as an opportunity to express solidarity.

Meanwhile, the country's politicians are continuing to reject pressure from Berlin and Brussels to take in set quotas of asylum-seekers. The Czech Republic had been due to take in 1,500, but reports suggest that figure could almost quadruple under the latest EU plans. Tensions over refugees may be easing somewhat, but the issue is not going to go away soon.