Czechs halt Iraqi refugee scheme after group leaves for Germany
Czechs angry after Iraqi Christians reject asylum and rent a bus to leave the country
Protesters show their solidarity with migrants detained in Czech refugee detention centres in Prague last November. The Czech government had backed a scheme run by church groups to resettle Christians driven from their homes by extremist organisations like Islamic State. Photograph: Michal Cizek/AFP/Getty Images
A bold project to bring Iraqi Christian refugees to a sceptical central Europe has been terminated, after almost one-third of the new arrivals rejected life in the Czech Republic and rented a bus to take them to Germany.
The 25 Iraqis formally refused asylum in the Czech Republic last Friday, retrieved their passports from the country’s interior ministry in Prague and hit the road for Germany, where they are now awaiting a decision on their fate.
Czech officials called a halt to the scheme on Thursday, and said the incident showed how proposals for every EU state to take a quota of refugees were doomed, because almost all of them want to live in Germany or other wealthy countries.
“The seven-day deadline, which the Iraqi Christians got along with their passports, is meant for them to be able to arrange the return home,” Czech interior minister Milan Chovanec said last weekend.
“This time cannot be used to break laws or to move to another Schengen country. I asked the Czech police to use all legal means so that these people, who abused the good will of the Czech Republic and her citizens, are returned to Iraq. ”
Amid strong public suspicion across central Europe towards refugees, the Czech government backed a scheme run by church groups to resettle Christians driven from their homes by extremist organisations like Islamic State.
Since January, 89 of a planned 153 Iraqis were brought to several locations around the Czech Republic, to lodge their asylum applications and start language classes in anticipation of beginning work and school in their new hometowns.
In a country whose president, Milos Zeman, has repeatedly issued lurid warnings about dangers posed by Muslim refugees, the Iraqi Christians received a reasonably warm welcome despite early hiccoughs.
A member of the first group to arrive, in the town of Jihlava about 130km from Prague, complained to a Czech television reporter about the accommodation they were offered, and locals in another host town voiced concerns over the scheme.
“The accommodation didn’t seem to be the problem,” said Martin Frydl of Generation 21, the foundation co-ordinating the project.
“We asked many times why they were not happy, what they would want to change, but we were unable to get concrete facts. They said they were glad that the Czech Republic had welcomed them like this, but they could not live here.”
Mr Frydl suspects they were struggling to adapt psychologically to life as refugees far from home, but also that someone was urging them to leave the Czech Republic.
“I think they have been persuaded. Maybe they had contact with a lawyer somewhere. A local translator helped them rent the bus but we don’t know how they paid for it.”
The next group of refugees was due to arrive from northern Iraq this week, but the project was suspended while the government pondered its future.
“There is a feeling that they abused the good will of the Czech people, although we don’t judge them and we wish them all the best,” said Mr Frydl.
“But they have made life more difficult for those who will stay here and for those who were due to come.”
As the government decided to halt the project on Thursday, it was announced that eight of 24 refugees living in Brno, the Czech Republic’s second city, would return to Iraq due to “homesickness”.
Mr Frydl said he expected Iraqi refugees already in the Czech Republic to be allowed to stay, and suggested they could be joined by members of the next group that was due to arrive who had already passed security checks.