The residency of foreigners and their integration into the Czech Republic
Apart from refugees, i.e. asylum-seekers and recognised refugees whose residence is subject to the Asylum Act, the vast majority of foreigners are subject to the Act on the Residence of Foreigners. This distinguishes between many different types of residency, which can be broken down into three groups: short-term, long-term, and permanent. Their character has a fundamental impact not only on the actual life of foreigners in the CR, but their motivation to become integrated into Czech society, and the possibility of availing themselves of various opportunities (study and work, but also accommodation and travel). Each of these actions is encumbered by a certain administrative burden and a range of obstacles, always depending on the type of residency involved.
Moreover, with the entry of the Czech Republic into the EU, foreigners are divided into two new groups: citizens of the EU and citizens of so-called “third countries”. EU citizens meet relatively simple administrative prerequisites, so the same conditions apply to them as to Czech citizens with respect to residency, work, etc. Consequently, here we shall focus on the second group. Not only is it a larger group, it also encounters incomparably greater difficulties on the one hand and pressure and requirements from majority society for its integration on the other. Naturally, we have to take into consideration that this group includes Americans, Canadians, Japanese, etc., whose status, despite the de jure same conditions for acquiring residency and work, is completely different from that of, for instance, Ukrainians, Vietnamese, Arabs, Africans, etc.
Foreigner: The Act on the Residence of Foreigners defines a foreigner as a citizen of another country residing within the CR.
Immigrant: This term is commonly used for foreigners with permanent or long-term (with the possibility of permanent) residency. However, this designation is not enshrined in any Czech legislation – on the other hand, it appears many times in strategic documents of the EU and CR relating to the integration of foreigners.
Short-term residency: The short-term residency of a foreigner refers to a stay of up to 90 days, e.g. tourists or someone on a short-term work attachment.
Long-term residency: This is a stay in excess of 90 days. In practice, long-term residency usually refers to a stay in which a foreigner with a visa for over 90 days resides in the country for more than a year. This visa must be extended every year, and all the information which the foreigner had to substantiate when applying for the visa must be substantiated every year, i.e. financial resources, purpose of stay (work, studies, etc.), accommodation, etc. However, there is no right to this visa, i.e. foreigners may be refused a visa without being given a reason and even though they have submitted all the requisite documentation. This naturally leads to considerable insecurity on the part of applicants, and great arbitrariness on the part of the administrative body, the Foreign Police.
With certain exceptions, access to healthcare, medical treatment and other services is more complicated for these foreigners. Although an economically-active foreigner must pay the same taxes and deductions for social security, they have much more restricted access to these resources in the event of emergency, while sickness and unemployment benefits do not apply to them, etc.
Visa: This is an entitlement to enter and reside within a designated territory. Visas are divided into short-term visas (up to 90 days) which relate only to certain countries (usually the countries of the former USSR, Asia, Africa, etc.) and long-term visas (over 90 days), which every foreigner must apply for if they are not a citizen of an EU country. There are many such visas and they are distinguished according to their purpose (c.f. below). An application for such a visa must be submitted outside of the CR. It is not possible, for instance, to arrive in the CR on a tourist visa and then to apply for a long-term visa. However, it is under certain circumstances possible to have, for instance, a visa for the purpose of employment, residence within the CR, and then to apply for a visa for the purposes of doing business. The important thing is always that the first visa has not lapsed prior to the second visa becoming valid. Otherwise, it is necessary to leave the country. NB. Not even a valid visa is a hundred-percent guarantee that a foreigner will be allowed to enter the CR - or that they will be given an explanation for a refusal!
Purpose of visit: This refers to the purpose for which a foreigner is issued permission to visit, e.g. study, work, to start a family, to participate in a company, to set up a company, etc. It is important to know that a student may not, on the basis of their visa, also work, etc. A special visa is necessary for each unique purpose. Theoretically, a foreigner could have several types of visas for various purposes. There is a fee charged for all of these visas, and specific facts have to be corroborated.
Permanent residence: This is a form of residence which a foreigner can acquire after living continuously in the Czech Republic for five years (previously it was 10 years), and there is now a legal right to acquire this residency. This means that if foreigners are refused long-term residency they must be given a reason, and they can appeal against such a decision. An important condition is that the foreigner cannot have lived outside the CR for more than a total of 10 months during the previous five years. A foreigner with permanent residence enjoys all the rights and obligations of a Czech citizen, with the exception of the right to vote, to serve in the army, to work in military units, and to work in positions for which the state reasonably requires Czech citizenship. Permanent residence can also be acquired by marrying a citizen of the CR or a citizen of the EU residing in the CR, but only after a two-year waiting period. Another special category is permanent residence for humanitarian reasons, which a foreigner may receive if either they or a member of their family is suffering serious health problems which are such that to return to their own country could put their life at risk.
Resident of the EU: This is a new category, or rather a supplement to the existing practice of treating foreigners of third countries residing permanently (a minimum of 5 years) in a member country of the EU. Using this statute, a citizen of a third country may enjoy the same advantages as a citizen of the EU, i.e. free movement, the possibility of working in countries which have not introduced transitional measures in the labour market against workers from new member countries, etc. Without this statute, a foreigner with permanent residence in the CR would be regarded in Europe purely and simply as a citizen of a third country and would have to meet visa obligations, would encounter a different approach when entering the jobs market, doing business, etc. The aim of this measure is to balance the status of these foreigners and that of EU citizens throughout the territory of the EU, so that it corresponds to their status within the framework of the country which awarded them permanent residence. At present, this status is supposed to be awarded automatically with permanent residence or asylum, and at the very most a simple verbal request from the foreigner should suffice.
Integration: In accordance with the latest know-how and approaches applied (e.g. within the framework of European integration policies), this is a two-way process, i.e. it is the totality of the activities of a foreigner on the one hand, and the approaches of the receiving society on the other. Although there are disputes regarding the concrete form and requisite level of integration of new arrivals into Czech/European society, it is clear that, at the very least, this is a process during which the individual is gradually incorporated into the receiving society as a legal member if they accept its rules and respect its laws and basic principles – in the case of the CR, examples include liberal principles, democracy, equal rights for women and individual freedom. A substantial role is played in the assessment and promotion of integration by the language of the local society. On the other hand, there are also demands placed on the society to allow the new arrivals to integrate, i.e. to learn the language, to understand the society’s rules and norms, etc., and to approach foreigners openly and gradually ensure their equality with the society’s own citizens. It is also important to incorporate the new arrival into the regular daily activities of the community. For instance, there is talk now of the need to create links of mutual dependency at work and in services between local people and new arrivals, in order to ensure that the natural need for mutual contact is met and to prevent the social exclusion of immigrants, who, on the contrary, should feel themselves to be a strong and responsible part of the new society.
Thanks to developments over the last few years in Western Europe, perceptions of foreigners as being primarily refugees or members of some religious or other community are subsiding, and on the contrary foreigners are now being seen as individuals with an individual history, needs, potential, rights and duties.
The natural culmination of the integration of an immigrant into society should be their acceptance as a citizen of their new-found country. In the Czech Republic, citizenship can be acquired after five uninterrupted years in the country - but only on the basis of permanent residence or asylum, and there is no legal right to this. Foreigners can thus theoretically be refused citizenship even though they meet all the conditions: they pass a test in Czech, they demonstrate that they owe nothing in the way of insurance or taxes if they are businesspeople, that they have permanent accommodation, employment, and all the authorities in their place of residence support their application.
As we have seen, foreigners with permission to stay longer than 90 days, i.e. with long-term residence, reside in the CR for a precisely designated purpose. The purpose of their stay influences not only the conditions under which they can reside, work or study, but also the possibilities of their becoming incorporated into society. The conditions which they have to meet are stringent and not even meeting them will always bring the security of being able to stay in the CR. This naturally impacts on the motivation of foreigners to integrate. A bad experience will lead foreigners into isolation, or into finding various middlemen.
This is the case with Suong’s mother, who would like to return to Vietnam, feels isolated here, does not speak Czech, and whose unpleasant experience with the Foreign Police (after which the entire family had to leave the country, apply anew for a visa, and thus postpone the possibility of acquiring permanent residence) has not made things any better. In this case, it is clear that the motives and potential for integration into Czech society are often of a social character, i.e. they are determined by the conditions under which the foreigner resides here and the approach taken by majority society to them, rather of a cultural character, i.e. underpinned by differences between cultural backgrounds.
Moreover, the Czech Republic still has a considerable deficit in terms of activities aimed at the integration of foreigners living in the country long-term and with the potential to remain for good. While there were a number of programmes in the country organised for refugees by the state and non-governmental organisations before the Czech Republic joined the EU, an increase in activity for long-term foreign residents has only been observed in the past two to three years (since approximately 2009), particularly in response to the effects of the economic crisis and the sudden loss of employment experienced by thousands of migrant workers and the related (usually negative) consequences of this. One of the reasons why even today it is very difficult to set up a system of activities which would correspond to the needs of Czech society on the one hand, and the potential and needs of migrants on the other, is the severely restricted time which these foreigners have at their disposal. Migrant workers, for instance, are so exploited that it is difficult for them to regularly attend courses in Czech or integration courses, which are being organised more and more; often, such migrants are even prevented from taking part in such courses by their “employers” (or more precisely, those who mediate work and resident in the Czech Republic).
The families of our protagonists must undergo the same drawn-out and psychologically-demanding procedure every year – to track down all the necessary documents, stand in a queue for an entire day (or even for several days before they are “successful”) at the office of the Ministry of Interior (or, in specifically- defined cases, at the Foreign Police Office), experience moments of insecurity as to whether everything is in order, and anxiety as to whether what they have is enough for this body to extend their visa. On top of this, if the foreigners do not understand Czech or have no friend or colleague to interpret for them, it can easily occur that there is no language in common with which to make themselves understood to the relevant civil servant.
Foreigners encounter various types of misunderstandings with different authorities, whether it is a language problem or insufficient knowledge of the rights and obligations of a foreigner with a given type of residence. In this respect, a huge service is provided by non-profit organisations which accompany the foreigner, and also frequently provide civil servants with training in the sphere in question. At the initiative of the Ministry of Interior in the past two years, Centres for the Integration of Foreigners have begun to be set up which now offer a relatively wide spectrum of services to foreigners in almost every region. Despite these efforts, the Czech Republic is criticised from time to time for its approach to foreigners at various authorities by international organisations monitoring human rights, such as Amnesty International and the International Helsinki Committee.
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