The website for critical discussion about migration in Central and Eastern Europe.

Foreigners in Public Life - Participation or Integration?

In the following article Martin Rozumek and Lukáš Prskavec comment on the integration of foreigners in the Czech Republic and on the fact that although many of them have long-term residence in CR and have lived here for decades, they have no right to participate in political life. The authors point out that the inclusion of foreigners in the affairs and politics of the place where they live would be an important step towards their integration.

The most recent international comparison of integration policies - the Migration Integration Policy Index (MIPEX) - was carried out in 2010 [1]. The research involved 27 EU member states (without Croatia), Norway, Switzerland, Canada and Japan. Besides the positions of individual countries on the access of foreigners to the labour market, on family reunion and access to education, the project also ranked the terms of the legislative provisions applying to the political participation of foreigners. The Czech Republic ranked last but one in this indicator and showed no improvement since the previous measuring in 2007 – neither in the ranking nor in the adopted policies. Four main categories were monitored: voters’ rights, political freedoms, advisory bodies, and implementation policies. The only points gained were in the “right to establish media” category; in all other categories we got zero points.

The ranking of the Czech Republic in this international comparison is an accurate reflection of the degree of importance this country attaches to the political participation of foreigners. While migration or – to be more specific - the integration of foreigners and the role of their political participation is a topic that has been discussed in western European countries since the 1970s, a really serious debate on this issue has not even started here. This is despite the fact that after becoming a part of the EU structures and of the Schengen area the Czech Republic has definitely become a target destination for many migrants. There are currently 440,000 registered foreign nationals with long-term residence in the Czech Republic, less than half of whom have been given “permanent residence” status as defined by the Act on the Residence of Foreigners [2]. To acquire permanent residence, which the Czech State considers to be the highest possible status of a foreign national prior to naturalisation, a foreigner must stay on the territory of the Czech Republic for at least five years without interruption, he/she must know the Czech language, have a clean record and adequate means of subsistence, and is required to submit a number of other prescribed documents. In return for demonstrating a certain degree of integration, a foreign national is given access to the social security and health systems. The CR, however, will not provide foreigners with the option of influencing the developments in their neighbourhood and its position continues to be based exclusively on the citizenship concept. A similar approach is practiced by roughly half of the EU member states, but naturalisation of foreign nationals is much faster and easier to achieve there than in our country [3]. The average number of naturalisations in the European Union is 23 cases per 1000 foreigners; in CR it is only 4 out of 1000, which again puts us in the last place. A curious situation thus arises when foreign nationals can remain excluded from participation in political life for decades. “Third country” foreign nationals [4] thus do not enjoy either active or passive right to vote and do not have the option of becoming members of political parties at any level. This means that a foreigner who has been living, let’s say, for 10 years in the same municipality and has been paying taxes, does not have the possibility of co-deciding, for instance, about the site of a new nursery school or where benches are to be placed in public areas.

The position of the Czech authorities is, in a certain sense, almost absurd; the law says that “…the right to elect members of local councils applies to the foreign national, who (…) on the day of local council elections (…) is registered as permanent resident of the municipality and who is entitled to vote according to an international convention” [5]. No such convention, however, has ever been adopted and is not even under preparation.

Moreover, we had been the proud driving force in the adoption of an ambitious UN Human Rights Council resolution on equal political participation [6], which urges all States to “take proactive measures to eliminate all barriers in law and in practice that prevent or hinder citizens, in particular women, persons belonging to marginalized groups or minorities, and persons in vulnerable situations, from fully and effectively participating in political and public affairs.” [7] When it comes to ourselves, however, we do not extend the right to decide about public affairs to foreigners and do not even recognise their rights as citizens of the municipality and region in which they legally live and reside. On the other hand, we are very consistent in our requirement that all the inhabitants of a town or village, including foreign nationals, pay local charges for waste collection or dog charges.

Although we signed the Council of Europe Convention (no. 144) on the Participation of Foreigners in Public Life on Local Level [8] as early as on 7 June 2000, it has not yet been ratified; moreover, our government is planning to submit a reservation concerning the right of third country nationals to vote in local elections. Thus an extension of the right to vote to foreign nationals of third countries probably cannot be expected at any time soon, even though the Public Defender of Rights (Ombudsman) as well as Czech Government reports on the state of human rights in CR have pointed out the inappropriateness of the current legislation [9].

In fact, visible participation of foreigners in public life, their vote, their faces in elected bodies and in the media is exactly what is missing in the Czech - and not only migration - reality.

The achievement of participation of foreigners in public life would be the one important step needed to be able to break away from the integration policy concept developed, controlled and financed by the restrictively inclined Ministry of the Interior. That is why Czech integration policy is the way it is. It lacks the courage to name both the real, or any problems foreigners might face, due to the way migration policy is set, be it government tolerated exploitation in the labour market or defective commercial health insurance, which brings profit to the insurers and losses to the State, hospitals as well as to the foreigners, or absurd obstacles erected in the path of industrial and IT companies in dire need of experts from abroad or, for example, the problems faced by foreign students who want to study here and who are very much needed especially by Czech private higher education institutions.

On the other hand, the integration concept relies on “integration centres”, which are usually in the hands of, and subordinated to the Ministry of the Interior. It is thus no surprise that these “government integration centres”, which, of course, do provide a number of useful services – for example Czech language courses, are instructed not to provide legal aid to foreigners namely in administrative proceedings commenced by the Ministry, which in view of the concentration of power by the Ministry of the Interior causes most of the legal problems foreigners have. Another example is the guidance note issued to the centres to collect discrediting information of a criminal nature on foreigners living in the relevant region. This dependent and, politely put, “informative” model of State integration does not, of course, work; in many regions the foreigners do not trust it and it is slowly wasting away. [10]

The key to integration is, indeed, participation at local level, i.e. the inclusion of foreigners in the developments and politics in the place where they live. Integration takes place especially in the villages or towns and in the legal work environment. That is why the powers and funds for the integration of foreigners must be transferred to the municipalities, not left in the security portfolio of the Ministry of the Interior. This would allow the municipalities to have real influence over the situation. At government level, the integration of foreigners should be the remit of the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, as used to be the case in the past, not fall under the security portfolio of the Ministry of the Interior. More interesting from the point of view of integration of foreigners than the never-ending stream of information on how an alien had been growing marijuana or worked at a building site illegally would be to try to find out what was of the greatest concern to the foreigners themselves or, for example, about their involvement in interest-focused and professional organisations, trade unions, attendance at cultural, educational and sport events, etc.

This is where the roots of the tough opposition by the Ministry of the Interior against any kind of extension of the right to vote lie. Indeed, the idea of foreigners being visible co-citizens in our country, who would start to push for change and for the lifting of restrictions and putting an end to exploitation, is evidently an unwelcome scenario of departure from government-controlled “integration” towards common participation of foreigners in the life of Czech society.

Martin Rozumek, Lukáš Prskavec
Organisation for Aid to Refugees, o.s


The text was written under the project called "Foreign workers in the labour market," which was carried out by the Association for Integration and Migration, in cooperation with the Organization for Aid to Refugees and the Multicultural Center Prague. International project partners are Caritasverband für die Diezöse Osnabrück from Germany and the Anti-Slavery International from Great Britain.

[2] Act 326/1999 Sb., on the residence of foreign nationals in the Czech Republic 

[3] http://zpravy.e15.cz/domaci/udalosti/imigranty-ne-cesko-dava-cizincum-obcanstvi-nejmene-z-eu-1056129

[4] Third countries here are all the non-EU countries. Under the Treaty of Accession, citizens of EU member states can vote in local (municipal) elections and elections to the European Parliament. 

[5] Section 4 of Act 491/2001 Sb., on elections to representative bodies of municipalities and amendment of some acts. 

[6] Human Rights Council, Twenty-fourth session, 25 September 2013, document A/HRC/24/L.18/Rev.1. 

[7] See Ministry of Foreign Affairs: United Nations Human Rights Council: Czech resolution on equal political participation adopted by consensus; available here

[8] Decision of the Government of the Czech Republic No. 99 of 9 February 2011 on the updated Concept of Integration of Foreigners on the Territory of the Czech Republic and on the proposal for further procedure in 2011 (www.mvcr.cz/soubor/uv-09022011-pdf.aspx) 

[9] Report on the State of Human Rights in the Czech Republic in 2000 (part 7.3.1) and repeatedly also the Report on the State of Human Rights in the Czech Republic in 2001 (part 2.3.1) 

[10] Integration centres run by other entities than the State are an honourable exception; such centres, especially in Prague, Brno and Ústí nad Labem, are doing a good job and their lawyers and social workers have their hands full.

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