Speeches

1. 2. 2016 9:58

Speech on the migration situation delivered by the Prime Minister to the Chamber of Deputies on 21 January 2016

Speech on the migration situation delivered by the Prime Minister to the Chamber of Deputies on 21 January 2016
Speech on the migration situation delivered by the Prime Minister to the Chamber of Deputies on 21 January 2016

Mr Vice Chairman, Parliamentary Deputies, I would like to apprise you of key developments in migration over the past few months. Looking back, the last time I discussed the migration crisis here, at a plenary sitting of the Chamber of Deputies, was in October last year. There is every indication that the political leadership, both in the Czech Republic and in the European Union as a whole, will have to continue keeping a close eye on how migration unfolds and respond accordingly even in 2016.

Ladies and gentlemen, we irrefutably find ourselves in the midst of the biggest tide of refugees since the end of the Second World War. As an endless flow of people pours into the European Union, showing hardly any sign of letting up despite the onset of winter, those states of the European Union most beleaguered are coming under increasing pressure. I remain convinced that our solution to the whole of this migration crisis must be based on the following principles:

  • Migration can only be tackled by a united Europe, not by individual countries acting in isolation. I am keen to dispel the illusion and reject some of the proposals that crop up very frequently espousing the notion that we should wash our hands of the migration crisis by exiting the European Union. “Let’s rid ourselves of this migration crisis by erecting a fence around the Czech Republic and not letting anyone in.” Such naive approaches would do nothing to bring the migration crisis under control, and sooner or later, if we do not come to grips with this problem on a European-wide basis, it will have a profound effect on life here in the Czech Republic, too.
  • Refugees are no organised army. Washing in with this wave of migration is a mix of refugees fleeing war in Syria and Iraq, along with economic migrants hailing from countries not ravaged by armed conflict, such as Pakistan. Europe is now paying the price for, in effect, politically turning a blind eye to the war in Syria. We are also counting the cost of failing to install the long needed sustainable stability in Iraq once Saddam Hussein’s regime had been ousted.
  • Unless there is peace in Syria and unless Islamic State is defeated, millions more people will want to make their way into Europe from the Middle East before long. We must join forces with countries neighbouring the European Union to address the migration crisis. Above all, Turkey must work with us on a solution to this migration crisis. Countries currently taking care of anywhere between hundreds of thousands and millions of refugees need support. These countries must be assisted because they are the ones looking after refugees just beyond the European Union’s borders. I am thinking here not only of Turkey, but also of Jordan and Lebanon.
  • I would also venture that immigration policy must have rules and limits. In my opinion, it is incumbent on Europe to help those who are fleeing war and persecution, but only insofar as this does not expose it to any danger itself. The security aspect is central to the way the migration crisis is handled, especially when we consider Islamist militants.
  • Migration must be intrinsically controlled on the external Schengen border. Protection of the external Schengen border needs to be beefed up. Again, bolstering this external border is a task for Europe as a whole.
  • Ladies and gentlemen, the arrival of too many refugees in Europe too quickly will inhibit their effectual integration and heighten the risk of strife. If, then, integration is to be successful and security is to be maintained, the current spate of migration needs to be significantly curtailed, regulated and policed. Likewise, it is important to exercise individual responsibility rather than apply a principle of collective guilt.

Overview of the state of play in Europe

In order to get an idea of the current situation in the world ahead of our debate on the migration crisis in the Chamber of Deputies, I will present some basic facts.

Last year, the Balkan route was easily the busiest. The migratory flow along this Balkan route categorically outstrips the Mediterranean sea route to Italy. Turkey currently hosts between two and two-and-a-half million Syrian refugees. In Germany, statistics maintained by the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees showed that more than 57,000 applications for international protection had been registered in November. In that month, nationals of Syria, followed by people from Afghanistan and Iraq, submitted the most initial applications in Germany, which is a significant target country for the tide of migrants. EASO statistics indicate that November was the seventh month in which Syria led the field in the number of applications for international protection.

In response to the failure to stem the migratory flow and consolidate the situation on the external borders, numerous Member States – especially those targeted as destinations by the migrants – are taking national measures.

In December, Sweden officially sought inclusion as one of the Member States from which refugees were to be relocated. Subsequently, Austria asked to be excluded from the obligation to share in relocation as a recipient state on account of the high numbers of asylum seekers already present in the country. Sweden has said it wants to take up the option of the “available” 54,000 relocated migrants originally earmarked for Hungary in the second relocation scheme. Although it is quite understandable that Sweden is reaching its limits, I find this approach to be non-systemic. For a joint European solution to work, the external border needs to be protected and new arrivals must be registered at their point of initial entry into the European Union. Again, the Swedish proposal deals with the fallout instead of grappling with the causes.

Countries such as Denmark, Finland, Norway and even Sweden have backed proposals to amend asylum law in a bid to accelerate proceedings and stave off abuses thereof. Together with France, Slovenia and Austria, these target countries for migrants have gradually stepped up controls on external borders, citing internal security. Austria has also started putting up a fence along its border with Slovenia.

Slovenia has introduced a national policy of turning back economic migrants in an attempt to limit admission only to those from conflict-torn countries, specifically nationals of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. By returning people to Croatia, it naturally triggered a chain reaction in the Western Balkans that ended up with the Macedonian-Greek borders being closed to economic migrants. Slovenia has also started erecting a fence along its border with Croatia.

Ladies and gentlemen, as I have tried to describe here, in the last few months we have witnessed uncoordinated reactions by Member States of the European Union seeking to resolve, on their own, a problem that, in meaning and scope, is beyond them. This is particularly true of countries on the Balkan route. The failure to implement a single European solution to the crisis is degenerating into a threat to the Schengen area and a threat to the free movement of persons within the Schengen area. We can see that the approved redistribution mechanism, which I will touch on in a moment, is not a viable solution. The solution is to curb migration by protecting external borders, carrying out proper registration in hotspots, engaging in return-policy cooperation with countries of origin and supporting those countries so that they are able to offer their people at least some prospects. As I have already said, the wave of migration is deeply intertwined with the military conflict in Syria. Until that strife dies down and until Islamic State’s expansionism is choked, it will be difficult to find a truly effective formula for the situation as it stands.

Developments in the Czech Republic

Ladies and gentlemen, I would now like to turn attention to how the situation is developing in the Czech Republic. Between the start of 2015 and the end of October last year, 387 people were granted international protection here in the Czech Republic. They were joined by 20 more beneficiaries between October and mid-November, followed by a further 49 in the period from mid-November to mid-December. Those figures include persons granted asylum status on the one hand and subsidiary protection beneficiaries on the other. Specifically, 71 persons were granted asylum and 385 were given subsidiary protection in the Czech Republic in 2015.

When it comes to international protection, we are bound by commitments under international law and by our own applicable legislation, by which I mean the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms and the Asylum Act. Decisions on international protection have been taken by the Ministry of the Interior on the basis of due process – the same legal process it has applied for years. The 2015 figures that I have just mentioned show that the Czech Republic is not a country targeted by the tide of migrants and that we lie off the principal migration route which, last year, mainly led through the Balkan Peninsula.

Then there is the process of relocation. This process is covered by a decision taken by the Justice and Home Affairs Council on 22 September 2015, which – as you know – set out one-off quotas. As part of this relocation process, we are to relocate 2,691 persons from Italy and Greece. In the interests of maintaining a constructive approach – which we expect to be reciprocated by Europe – the Czech Republic respects this decision.

However, it is a matter of extreme importance, if we are to be in any position at all to transfer anyone via the relocation mechanism, for the promised hotspots to finally start running in Greece and Italy. The optimal functioning of these centres remains far off. Registration is convoluted, rules are inconstant, and suspicions of a whole raft of procedural irregularities have emerged.

The fact that 16 Member States have offered free capacity to take in asylum seekers under the relocation scheme, yet the overall number of those relocated stands at barely one tenth of such capacities, proves that the hotspot idea has not yet been put fully into practice. By December, European countries had offered capacity for 1,660 persons, but only 160 were relocated – 130 from Italy and a mere 30 from Greece.

The refugees in Italy were transferred to Germany, France, Finland, Spain and Sweden, while the refugees from Greece were relocated to Luxembourg. The latest figures show that, in early January, 82 persons had been relocated from Greece and 190 from Italy. There are meant to be six hotspots in Italy.

The Czech Republic is also involved in assistance, via resettlement programmes, to those refugees fleeing war. As last year drew to a close, we helped three families with sick children to make their way here. They are three Syrian families from Jordan. We approved this resettlement programme at the beginning of last year and will continue to implement it in conjunction with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Under this programme, devised to assist seriously ill children in several Syrian families, we select the families to be resettled fully in line with the way we have defined the rules.

In December last year, the Government also decided to resettle 153 Iraqis from the Republic of Iraq and Lebanon in the Czech Republic following a request from the Generace 21 Foundation. There are internally displaced persons of Christian faith who find themselves in the same conditions as refugees from Syria or refugees in Kurdistan. Although the Kurdish government tries to assist these internally displaced persons, it is under great pressure, which we can help to alleviate a little by providing this resettlement. Accordingly, the Czech Government entered into a cooperation agreement with the Generace 21 Foundation, under which 153 persons are to be resettled in the Czech Republic. The foundation is contributing to both the organisation and funding of this programme. Its Government partner is the Ministry of the Interior, which will oversee the legal procedures, including security screening.

Before I move on to the European level, which is absolutely crucial to the handling of the current situation, I would like to point out several measures that we have taken in the Czech Republic in response to the as yet unceasing inflow of migrants. The Government regularly meets to discuss the migration situation. This is in the hands of a coordinating body at the Ministry of the Interior. As a result, we are able to respond flexibly to all needs and requirements.

We have defused the illegal migration situation in this area. In the period from last June to last week, 3,315 persons were intercepted during illegal transit migration. The largest numbers detained in this way were reported in September and August. These persons, typically headed for countries other than the Czech Republic, were placed in immigration removal centres in accordance with applicable law. As at 19 January, 98 detainees were registered in Czech immigration removal centres. Most of them are nationals of Iraq, Afghanistan and Ukraine.

The approach taken by the Czech Republic, based on compliance with applicable law, based on compliance with the Dublin agreements, and based on preventive checks, has reined in illegal transit migration across the Czech Republic. Smugglers and traffickers know that the Czech Republic does not tolerate the illegal movement of migrants in its territory. Consequently, we have also coped with the initial signs of overcrowding in some immigration removal centres and have successfully established proper conditions in all of these facilities without resorting to any serious excesses. I would like to thank everyone who was involved and did not worsen the strained situation by ratcheting up the pressure, but instead remained cool-headed as they tackled this issue. Police units, the staff of refugee facilities and aid organisations all did a good job in my opinion.

We approved several changes in the coordination of migration-related activities in November last year:

  1. We project that this year there will be an increase in the number of persons whom we legally accept. We have committed ourselves to accept 2,691 persons under the relocation mechanism. It is our duty to prepare for their potential arrival. With this in mind, we have amended the state integration programme so that it can also be applied to these people and so that it can tap into adequate resources. Under that programme, we are poised to help any arrivals to find a place to live, learn Czech and secure a job.
  2. We have extended and stabilised the MEDEVAC medical programme and a special programme run by the Ministry of the Interior. Both of these programmes are intended to provide aid and assistance to refugees abroad, preferably in their countries of origin or in countries genuinely under great strain due to the influx of a barrage of refugees. I have already touched here on Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. MEDEVAC will cover 60 million crowns a year. We have earmarked a further 40 million for emergency assistance coordinated by the Ministry of the Interior, and the permanent programme for states facing migration problems has an annual budget of approximately CZK 100 million. Under that programme, managed by the Ministry of the Interior, we have supported, among other things, improvements in the infrastructure of the Zaatari refugee camp in cooperation with UNHCR. The Czech Republic’s financial contribution in this camp, containing more than 80,000 refugees from Syria, will make it possible to set up a safe power grid supplying regular and stable electricity to all of the refugee camp’s inhabitants. Further funds will be channelled into a similar project in Kurdistan, Iraq, with another CZK 10 million earmarked as aid for Turkey and Serbia. All of this is in addition to the development assistance coordinated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which is the third matter I would like to mention.
  3. From January to the end of September 2015, 35 projects in 21 countries benefited from assistance disbursed from the humanitarian budget of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Once again we concentrated on the countries where migration originates, and supported projects in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Jordan, Lebanon, Gaza, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Niger, the Central African Republic and Ukraine.

The Government took all the steps I have described here without being forced by anyone to do so and without wishing to curry favour with anyone. These were our own sovereign decisions chiming with the position we have maintained from the outset. We are keen to help where assistance is required. We are a Government with a sense of responsibility and, in the current migration crisis, we want the Czech Republic to be responsible, too. We cannot pretend that the migration crisis has nothing to do with us. It concerns everyone because it has been stoked by war, by suffering, and by inhumane conditions, and, as a process in itself, it stirs up stark social and political tensions. I have spelt out some of the specific ways in which we, as a state, play a role in helping the distressed. I am convinced that, as far as capacities allow, these are effective forms of assistance.

Developments at European level

Ladies and gentlemen, I would now like to discuss what has been happening in recent months at European level, where the Czech Republic has also been an active player. Numerous important talks have been held since October. There was a meeting in Valletta as a follow-up to the extraordinary informal European Council. In late November an EU-Turkey summit was held, followed by the European Council in December. We are now preparing for the February European Council.

The Valletta Summit, convened in November 2015, adopted a Political Declaration and an Action Plan for cooperation with African partners. This is a specific plan to reinforce the infrastructure of African countries so that they can better respond to migration-related issues. I believe it is extremely important that this action plan has quite specific commitments concerning the fight against smuggling and human trafficking, regarding the issuing of documents for citizens of those African countries, as well as readmission agreements and return policy. By the end of this year, each country of origin and transit of migration should have its own strategy in place, there should be improvements in exchanges of information, and there should be better cooperation in the fight against migration-related crime. The capacity of authorities in African countries responsible for return policy should also be reinforced/strengthened.

Another matter on which we agreed in Malta was the establishment of a Trust Fund for Africa. Needless to say, the Czech Republic will actively contribute to the functioning of this Trust Fund by making its own financial donation.

At the same time, the V4 countries agreed to increase the presence of their experts in FRONTEX and EASO structures.

Following the Valletta meeting, which focused on the southern migration route, an extraordinary European Council took place and finally addressed a matter which, in our opinion, the European Union should be primarily concerned with: the protection of the external Schengen border and arrangements for the proper functioning of hotspots on the external borders.

The Czech Republic takes the view that external borders require organised protection. Border protection per se needs to be accompanied by registration centres that will enable us to control who enters European space and where. Asylum procedures can then build on this.

Another important item on the agenda of the European Council was cooperation with third countries – not only African states, but also Middle Eastern countries (especially Turkey) and Western Balkan countries. An EU-Turkey Action Plan was prepared. I was personally very pleased that subsequently, on 29 November, the European Council session took place with the participation of Turkey. During negotiations with the Turkish side, as representative of the Czech Republic, I stressed the need to focus on managing and protecting common borders and combating smuggling and trafficking on Turkish territory. If we are to prevent further tragedies at sea while securing control of the external border of the European Union, effective cooperation needs to be established in particular between Greece and Turkey and between FRONTEX and Europol agencies.

Turkey must take the action required to stop traffickers and smugglers from being given free rein. These were the priorities and expectations forming the basis on which we were willing to offer Turkey material and expert assistance. However, the fact of the matter is that the EU-Turkey agreement must be implemented by both sides.

The principles of cooperation with Turkey were defined ahead of the summit by the Action Plan on cooperation between the European Union and Turkey, which we approved at the end of October. It stands on two pillars. First, Turkey must strictly enforce its applicable laws. What we are saying is that if Turkey is not doing everything it is able to by law to stem the flow of migration into Europe, it should start doing so immediately. There should be improvements in the conditions faced by refugees living in Turkey, and improvements in registration, asylum procedures and integration into Turkish society. This includes better access to the Turkish job market. Smuggling and trafficking need to be combated. We are keen to improve mutual exchanges of information with Turkey, to start organising returns and to assist Turkey in tackling organised crime.

This action plan should see Turkey enhance the efficiency of its coastguard, take back migrants who are not eligible for asylum, and work with Greece and Bulgaria on border protection.

Ladies and gentlemen, I have gone into detail on the agreement with Turkey quite intentionally. We need to remember that Turkey is a key partner for the European Union in the handling of the migration crisis and, beyond that, in the stabilisation of the Middle East as a whole. Turkey is a NATO member and a member of the antiterrorism coalition, and the recent incident with Russia gave us a ringside view of how important it is these days to maintain a rational approach framed by clearly agreed rules. Just as Turkey’s NATO membership helped to prevent an escalation in the Turkish-Russian air conflict, a clear framework of mutual cooperation, guaranteed by Europe, needs to be established, in particular regarding the countries on shared borders.

Why is Turkey so important? In the first 10 months of 2015, more than 550,000 migrants entered the European Union over the Turkish-Greek border. More than half a million people – this is a completely unprecedented increase in traffic compared to the previous year. A similar effect can be replicated in the case of Bulgaria. The Syrian crisis is set to continue further this year and it is in no one’s interest to be caught unguarded by unexpected changes in developments due to insufficient exchanges of information, absence of partnership approach, and absence of rules for common solutions.

I am pleased that we have this agreement with Turkey. Now we need to monitor its observance and mutual implementation of this agreement.

At the European Council in mid-December we discussed the need to ensure the protection of external borders. The December European Council was extremely important because it decided to implement a proposal which we, as the Czech Republic, had long been pressing for at European level – the establishment of a common European Border and Coast Guard. The Czech Republic had been proposing the establishment of this institution for months beforehand. We had repeatedly brought up the matter at European Council meetings. Therefore, am very pleased that this idea has finally been accepted. Undoubtedly, fear of the ongoing power vacuum on external borders which threatens the entire Schengen area, was a contributory factor. The Czech Republic pointed this out from the very beginning.

The European Commission incorporated the proposal to establish a common Border and Coast guard into a holistic package of measures on the protection of external borders that also includes an amendment to the rules on security in the Schengen area, specifically systematic checks – drawing on the relevant databases – of all persons entering or exiting the Schengen area. I would like to inform you that, in the opinion it adopted on 18 January this year, the Czech Government endorsed this package of the European Commission.

I regard as important that a return agency be set up within the framework of the common European Border and Coast Guard, to provide Member States with the assistance they need to carry out the effective return of illegal residents. This agency should coordinate and organise Member States’ return operations and, in cases of countries which are exposed to excessive migratory pressure, should be able to enforce returns on its own initiative. I think that what Europe needs as one of the  signals that not everyone who decides to come to Europe can be granted asylum here, is a well-functioning return policy that proves effective in practice  with countries such as Turkey or Pakistan.

Another measure approved by the European Council and relating to this current European package is the issue of systematic checks and identification. There are efforts here to prevent people from concealing their true identity. This measure also includes a proposal to create a European travel document, which would be issued for return-policy purposes.

These are the main proposals put forward by the European Commission prior to the December European Council. A priority for the Czech Republic is the prompt adoption of all instruments helping to rein in migration into the European Union, especially by means of boosted and rigorous protection of the exposed parts of the external border.

Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to return to a matter which is also of paramount importance for the Czech Republic, the cooperation with the Western Balkans countries. The Czech Republic is one of the states mindful of the fact that, in helping the countries long affected by the fact that they are on a migration route, it is essential to provide assistance that is as broad as possible, including police assistance and humanitarian aid.

I take pleasure in the fact that the Czech Republic is one of a handful of European countries to dispatch police officers and military equipment, including military forces, to Hungary. We are one of the countries helping to regulate migration in Slovenia. And we are making specific plans to assist in Macedonia. I am also pleased to see many of our spontaneously organised volunteers working along the Western Balkans route. These people travelled there to provide personal help, taking with them material aid, blankets, clothing, food and medicine. I believe that these voluntary and charity activities complement the aid provided by the Czech Government very well, not only to the government in Hungary and Slovenia, but also in Serbia and Macedonia.

The security factor

Ladies and gentlemen, I would also like to discuss the security factor in relation to the current migration crisis. We were all profoundly affected by the brutal terrorist attacks in Paris last November. I am convinced that we cannot identify terrorists – who systematically attack our values and try to frighten us – automatically with refugees, who in many cases are fleeing the same Islamist militants. The killings in Paris, followed by the murders in Istanbul, in Mali, Jakarta and elsewhere around the world, are the work of well-organised Islamist militants.

The Czech Republic is part of the international antiterrorism coalition and we will find ways of contributing to the international fight against terrorism. We do not underestimate any issues in safeguarding adequate internal security in the Czech Republic. Since last year, we have reinforced the police and intelligence services, which are now in a position to take on more people and carry out more efficient activity. In response to the heightened risk of terrorist attacks in Europe, we have decided to devise a new system to assess security risks in our territory – a security audit, if you will. We have also kept a close eye on the state of emergency imposed in France, the highest terror alert level in Brussels, and the related actions and activities. Undoubtedly, it is essential for the European intelligence services to communicate with each other as effectively as possible.

At the beginning of this week, the National Security Council met to discuss materials drawn up by the Minister of the Interior, coined the “antiterrorism package”. The antiterrorism package contains numerous legislative and non-legislative measures that can be effective in helping to combat and prevent terrorism in the Czech Republic. It is due to be discussed by the Government shortly. One of our aims is to improve public information in case of a terrorist threat. The Government is also proposing the establishment of four different terror alert levels, including a system for the their declaration and an adequate response.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is in the interest of us all to keep panic and hysteria at bay in Europe. It is in the interest of us all in order to maintain our operability and defend our democratic and liberal values from which we must make no concessions under any circumstances, including the freedom of expression. It is and would be wrong if people were under the impression that certain problems are not to be discussed. Perhaps people in Germany now have this feeling in relation to what happened in Cologne on New Year’s Eve. This is a very peculiar failure of the media there. Likewise, if anyone reports an offence or a crime, it is up to the state to find the culprit and enforce justice, and the state is responsible for ensuring our safety. Yet freedom of expression must not be abused to drive wedges between people or to incite violence and hatred. Such things are forbidden by Czech law because they undermine the democratic system and hence fair, judicious and safe coexistence. I would like to emphasize once more that the way forward lies in respecting common sense and respecting therules.

Conclusion

Ladies and gentlemen, those seeking asylum in European countries today must abide by rules and regulations. If asylum seekers do not appreciate the assistance offered to them, if they perpetrate crimes, this must result in their prompt deportation from the European Union.

Ladies and gentlemen, in my speech I have described the main levels on which the Czech Republic has been in a position to respond – and has responded – to the ongoing migration crisis, by which I mean the levels concerning our national reaction, our activities at European level, and our activities aimed at countries beyond Europe.

What, at the current juncture, lies before us? What should we concentrate on in the coming days and weeks? In collaboration with Turkey and Greece, migration on the Balkan route needs to be curtailed and controlled in order to significantly reduce the number of refugees making their way into Central and Western Europe. This requires reinforced border security in both Turkey and Greece. If these measures are not effective, we will have to make more robust use of the borders between Bulgaria, Macedonia and Greece to control migration. In that case, Bulgaria and Macedonia should receive strong assistance in terms of personnel and financial resources from the European Union. If neither action is taken,, we will see the borders of countries in Central and South-eastern Europe closed. The Czech Republic will be prepared. And should the f migratory pressure escalate in our territory, we will reinforce the guarding of our borders by deploying the police and the army, as we made the organisational preparations for this in 2015.

While we do stand ready to close part of our borders if needs be, the Czech Government would much prefer to find a common European solution. The Czech Republic will continue its efforts to contribute to such a common European solution, which will receive our strong backing. The February European Council awaits us. If, as seems the case, an extraordinary European Council is not convened and thus we do not meet until mid-February, the Czech Republic will categorically work towards the strongest possible protection of the external Schengen border, towards implementing the agreements concluded with Turkey, and towards alleviating the situation in countries along the borders of the European Union.. The Czech Government will continue to honour its commitments, including those given to our citizens, to do everything – while respecting assistance for the ones in need – to ensure safety here in the Czech Republic and to ensure the prevention of any risks that may be associated with the wave of migration.

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your attention.

Bohuslav Sobotka, Prime Minister of the Czech Republic

 

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