Czech public little moved by refugees’ plight


Picture of Jan Čulík
Jan Čulík

More than a quarter-century after the fall of communism in eastern Europe, the world has been surprised to learn that the region’s political culture is still far from being the same as that of western Europe’s democracies. The West perhaps assumed that the positive aspects of liberalism and democracy had automatically taken root eastwards, but so-called “New Europe” had in fact been choosing only those features of western life that conform to its own values. It was not until the refugee crisis that politicians and commentators in the West realised that these different values may even challenge the EU’s future.

In the post-communist countries, there is a minority of active volunteers who are determined to help refugees. But the general level of hostility towards refugees from Africa and the Middle East has been startling. Unlike in western Europe, societies in these countries are still extremely homogeneous. In the Czech Republic fervent hatred of refugees has been very widespread, even though very few refugees have actually entered the country. Anti-refugee hysteria is encouraged by politicians, and by the media for political and commercial ends.

Czech politicians have long avoided taking responsibility for problems by raising fears that the pre-1989 regime could return. This sort of scaremongering is far less effective than before, so now they have turned to raising fears of culturally-alien foreigners.

A notable feature of the present situation is the lack of Czech popular empathy for refugees. People are unmoved by the individual stories of hardship. The Czech public doesn’t believe them, and dismisses them as propaganda.

Much of this Czech anti-refugee hostility is motivated by fear. People genuinely believe that their country, and Europe as a whole, will be overwhelmed by Muslim culture, that there will be violence and sharia law. These European societies have an acute sense of victimhood and a feeling that “no one understands us, but we are the only ones in Europe who can see how things really are. The Germans will realise the danger only when it is too late.”

Czech deputy prime minister Andrej Babiš has tweeted that “Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic [who voted against the refugee quotas] are now the only remaining normal societies in Europe”. These attitudes mean that the few hundred refugees who have inadvertently stumbled onto Czech territory are irrationally regarded as a menace by the Czech authorities, are being rounded up by the police and kept in prison-like detention centres under shockingly inhumane conditions.

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