State integration programme

Jami’s family was registered on the State Integration Programme, which assists successful asylum seekers in the process of integration. This is a surprise for the other kids, and so Jami attempts to explain things. We offer a slightly more detailed description.

  • Topic

The State Integration Programme (SIP) began operating in 1994, and is the only comprehensive state-run integration initiative in the Czech Republic focusing on foreigners who have been granted international protection. It is intended only for recognised asylum seekers, and to a limited extent to individuals who have obtained so-called “additional protection” (a reduced form of international protection in comparison to asylum). SIP thus applies to approximately 200 people a year, which is a marginal figure in the context of the total number of immigrants. A key role in its implementation is played by the Ministries of the Interior, Education, Labour and Social Affairs, regional authorities and NGOs such as the Centre for Integration (Poradna pro integraci– PPI), the Association of Citizens Working with Emigrants (Sdružení občanů zabývajících se emigranty - SOZE), the Centre for the Integration of Foreigners (Centrum pro integraci cizinců - CIC), the Association for Integration and Migration (Sdružení pro integraci a migraci - SIMI), Charity Czech Republic (Charita Česká republika), Diocese of the Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren (Diakonie Českobratrské církve evangelické - DČCE), the Organisation for Aid to Refugees (Organizace pro pomoc uprchlíkům - OPU), or InBáze Berkat. Towns, local authorities, building owners and regional authorities also play a role in its implementation. Similar programmes are run in practically all of Western Europe, sometimes as national policy and sometimes as regional policy. However, the Czech SIP primarily differs from them in that, while Western programmes put the greatest emphasis on language and assistance in obtaining work, the Czech SIP focuses almost entirely on securing housing, and on free Czech language courses. With regard to assistance in the labour market, although government resolution no. 543 dated 14 May 2008 provides for assistance in securing employment, in practice refugees often do not obtain any such assistance.

The state integration programme (SIP) is on a general level defined in the Act on Asylum, and details are determined by government resolutions. The amendment on SIP in the Act on Asylum is very brief, but more detailed information on its implementation in practice can be found in the written information provided by the Ministry of Interior to asylum seekers with additional protection status, alongside announcements of decisions to award them this status. This information states, among other things, that the SIP is open only to people who apply directly, and that, while participation in the SIP is voluntary if the asylum-seeker or person with additional protection status enters the programme the SIP rules are thereafter binding. The law itself, however, contains no such stipulations.

Upon obtaining international protection a person has the opportunity to take advantage of temporary housing in an integration asylum centre (a facility run by the Ministry of the Interior’s Administration of Refugee Facilities). At present there are four such centres: in Jaroměř -– Josefov;, in Ústí nad Labem -– Předlice;, in Česká Lípa and in Brno-Židenice. These centres provide people with housing units (1+0 to 2+1) in which they pay a fee for accommodation and for services. However, this accommodation does nothing to help solve the issue of permanent accommodation, because residents with asylum status can only reside there for a maximum of 18 months.

The basic purpose of the SIP in the sphere of accommodation is to overcome the problems with the as yet not completely functional market in apartments in the CR. Under the current conditions, the vast majority of people with asylum would have no access to traditional rental housing in municipal flats: either they would not meet the required period of permanent residence in the municipality (usually between 3 and 5 years), or they would not be able to meet certain financial demands (e.g. a public tender, high rents for flats with unregulated rent, the high prices of new apartments, etc.). The vast majority of recognised refugees live on the edge of poverty, have no savings, and lack what for Czechs are the regular social networks which would enable them to receive reasonable offers, turn to friends in times of need, etc. The creators of the SIP based the programme on a simple idea: we do not want people with asylum to be put into the long-term, usually very isolated ‘care’ facilities of the Ministry of Interior, which among other things are very expensive to run; we do not want people with asylum to be incorporated into new parallel structures (or create them themselves); and we do not want them to become concentrated in socially excluded localities with a risk of criminality.

Since 1994, the state has given a subsidy to those towns or municipalities that provide fixed-term rental flats to people with asylum or their families, the amount of which depends on the number of people in the household. Part of the subsidy is aimed at improving the municipal infrastructure. In refugee households with several members, the state subsidy may be as much as several hundred thousand crowns. This fact is often the sole motivation for the local authorities to provide accommodation to refugees. The disadvantage of this method is the fact that the amount of the subsidy is not graduated according to the attractiveness of the municipality, so it is the same whether a regional town or village. Yet, obviously, it is easier for anyone – and for foreigners this is twice as true – to find work in larger towns, where it is also possible to find schools that are experienced with educating children who know no Czech, etc. In recent years mainly municipalities with poor accessibility and high unemployment have joined the programme. Refugees must often wait for an “integration flat” (the so-called Option I) for a long time, and not all of them get one in the end. For this reason, in the last two years a second possibility has been available, the so-called Option IIa: a successful asylum seeker can reach an agreement with the private owner of an apartment and for a period of eight years the state will contribute to the rent an amount determined according to the number of members in the family. While this is a good idea, it is demanding on administration and of little interest to owners of real estate, and consequently only a small number of refugees have taken advantage of it (the contribution to rent is paid by the state to the municipality, which then pays it to the owner of the real estate, usually with a delay of several months, and the municipality has inspection authority over both the owner and the refugee.

In the case of both options the money is not intended for the purchase of an integration flat. In the case of Option I, the contribution goes to the municipality for investment costs; in the case of Option II, the state contributes to rent. The refugee chooses between Options I and II and thus chooses between the security of a municipal flat without a contribution to housing or the insecurity of the free market but with a contribution to housing. The basic furnishings of these “integration flats” (e.g. furniture and dishes) are not part of the housing offer, but some NGOs provide furnishings if they obtain the necessary financial support for such projects. Another possibility is to cover the expense of a refuge staying in a social services facility (the so-called Option IIb).

People who obtain only additional protection status cannot use any of the above-described options of ‘integration housing’. If parents with minor children or dependent children with health disabilities are involved, or if people with serious health disabilities are involved, they may be able to stay in an integration centre of the Ministry of the Interior for a maximum period of three months from the time additional protection was granted.

Czech Language
Courses in Czech are offered free of charge to people with asylum status and to people with additional protection status.

Courses for people with asylum status or additional protection status residing in integration centres of the Ministry of Interior are organised by the Administration of Refugee Facilities. Conversely, courses for people with asylum or additional protection status residing outside such facilities (usually in ‘integration flats’) are provided by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport through a contracted entity.

In the past, courses on the Czech language were too short. People from a non-Slavic environment, and even some from Slavic environments, find that 150 hours is sufficient only to learn the most basic things. Because these courses were not followed by any further practice, whether in work, study, or some other area of application, refugees would quickly forget what they had learned. Problems were even encountered with teaching children under the age of 16, who dropped out of the course, and the courses were moreover interrupted from 2009 to 2011, so many people with asylum status or additional protection status were unable to start a course or saw their course interrupted for a long period.

This situation however has changed and since 2011 courses are provided for 400 hours, which students should complete within a period of 12 months. (By comparison, in Sweden for example, foreigners - not just people with asylum status but all immigrants - can receive up to 700 hours of Swedish lessons). The courses are usually in groups, but in exceptional cases may be individual. The written information provided by the Ministry of Interior to foreigners when they receive the decision on asylum status indicates that the status recipient should be informed no later than 60 days after being granted asylum of how to receive free Czech-language instruction. Before starting the course every student takes a test to determine their level of Czech, the organiser of the course works out a study curriculum, and after the course the foreigners sit a final test, receiving a certificate if they pass.

Work and unemployment
Just several years ago the government regulation on the SIP for the first time mentioned the fact that part of the programmes is also support for unemployment and job opportunities. However, unfortunately the regulation did not define the form of assistance. The rate of unemployment amongst people with asylum status who are capable of working is alarming (as much as 60%), even though statistics show that the educational average of these people is higher than that of the Czech population. People with asylum status should receive special attention at the labour offices, but as yet the effect of such attention is not yet apparent. If in both of the preceding spheres of assistance the role of NGOs has been important, in the sphere of work and unemployment it is absolutely crucial. Not only is it often the only assistance which refugees receive, in many regards it completely supplants the SIP in the sphere of work and unemployment, even though it does not operate within its framework. It may seem that the activities of NGOs in the area of employment are a solution for people with asylum status, but unfortunately even here there are problems, as it depends on the regions and type of clients for which NGOs obtain subsidies. It can easily occur that, for example, in a region where a person with asylum status is living there is no programme for the support of employment, or there is a programme only for selected foreigners and not for people with asylum status.

The state integration programme within the context of EU integration policies
There is more and more talk (and in certain EU countries action) connected with the need to require certain commitments from people with asylum status alongside providing them with certain advantages, i.e. a kind of integration contract. The current written consent of the refugee to be registered in the SIP is an example of such a contract, which stipulates certain conditions, but these relate only to attending the course in Czech and consenting to the conditions under which it is possible to receive or reject the integration flat offered, or the conditions for continuing or terminating participation in the SIP. However, a real integration contract would have to be based on precisely defined and realistic obligations for an immigrant and on the provision of a fair and non-discriminatory environment including the offer of services which the immigrant can use - in short, a whole complex of activities and corresponding services. It is moreover necessary to realise that refugees are a very specific group of migrants, and unlike others they are also entitled to adequate assistance from the state: they did not choose to leave their native country; they were forced to do so.

Several European countries are moving towards a situation where the entire burden of fulfilling such obligations lies solely with the migrant. However, in the opinion of NGOs, it is crucial that the obligations of the first and second party should correspond. It is not possible, they argue, to require an immigrant to learn fluent Czech within two years if there are not enough good-quality and accessible Czech courses; moreover, it is not possible to require the longest period of employment in order to obtain certain advantages, e.g. subsidised accommodation, while not doing anything to combat discrimination and not providing social and legal aid, etc. If the mutual obligations are not equal, the risk that immigrants will not register with such a programme will increase, along with all the negative consequences arising therefrom. Determining the scope and content of these conditions should be the sovereign right of each society, but they should also be the topic of national discussions. Whatever the form and content of assistance provided and requirements made of immigrants in an effort to integrate them, it is of key importance to recognise that it is above all in the interests of our society and its social stability. And it is always a good thing to monitor what has worked and what has not, both in this country and in other countries of Western Europe and further afield.

The SIP is a measure which is intended to assist refugees with integrating into Czech society and to prevent them from being socially excluded and creating foreign enclaves, which might operate as a flashpoint between the majority and immigrants. A limiting factor is that this initiative operates with difficulty in the areas of housing and language instruction, while ignoring other areas which are key to integration, such as assistance in finding employment, family reconciliation, obtaining citizenship, access to the pension system, etc.

  • Stories and examples

As we have seen, Jami’s family was lucky and received a nice apartment. But most probably they had to make every effort – they had to do a course in Czech, show that they had enough money to pay the rent, demonstrate that they had been actively looking for a flat, etc. Now the whole family lives in a town with a great number of opportunities in terms of work, language and social integration in general. However, we shall use the following case to demonstrate the opposite situation. It should be emphasised that, although this is a true example, it is not typical. Such situations reoccur from time to time, with different details and above all with different endings, and it is important to show that even the SIP does not always represent salvation, that sometimes an advantage does not always have to be a real advantage, etc. For the sake of illustration, we have chosen one story with a negative outcome in terms of the effectiveness of the SIP and, potentially, the integration of a family into Czech society.

Mr. Khan and his family from Afghanistan received asylum in 2002. Previously, they had lived in a residential centre, i.e. a refugee camp in Kostelec nad Orlicí. The family waited for three years for asylum status and had begun to lose hope – they were thinking of following the example of others and heading for the West, if, of course, they could find the money. But all their savings were gone. In addition, their two children were going to school, had learned perfect Czech, and were used to life here. So the parents were reluctant to drag them away from an environment to which they had become accustomed. They felt safe here. Asylum gave them a greater sense of optimism. They hoped that now they could live a normal life, especially if they were offered participation in the State Integration Programme, with its promise of Czech lessons and their own accommodation. However, with the allocation of asylum they could not remain in the refugee centre, and with nowhere to go they were moved to an integration asylum centre (also run by the Ministry of the Interior), i.e. facilities for people with asylum status in Hoštka u Roudnice nad Labem. While Kostelec is small, but still a town, Hoštka is really just a village, and what’s more, the integration asylum centre is 2 km away from the village. This was unpleasant, especially for the children, who had to get to school every day during winter (both children were 10 years old). The family felt very isolated, the promised Czech course was always being postponed (the location was apparently too far away for any of the tutors), their neighbours with asylum status were mostly Russian speakers whose Czech was much better and who didn’t speak much with the Khans. Worst of all was the employment situation. There was no work in the area itself, and whenever a job became available, it was either a problem getting to work or getting home after work. Local transport was slow and infrequent. The Khans, with the help of an NGO, applied for an integration apartment in various large towns in the CR, always wherever they expected better access to Czech courses and, above all, to work. After two years of effort, there were no concrete results, simply a few promises. One day, about three years after being granted asylum and six years after arriving in the CR, the family received a letter from the Ministry of Interior, in which they were offered an apartment in a small village some 30 kilometres from Litoměřice, with the proviso that if they did not accept it the family would be expelled from the integration asylum centre, since their participation in the SIP would be terminated. What was the family to do? It accepted the flat. However, the small village was similar to Hoštka: there was no work and many of the locals had never seen a foreigner in their lives, let alone someone from Afghanistan. If the Khans had exchanged a few words with the neighbours in the past, now they were completely dependent, above all on their children. The children brought them news and communicated with the locals. One day, the family moved. They ceased to have any faith in the assistance of the SIP and the possibility of becoming normal citizens. Mr. Khan reached an agreement with one of his compatriots, in whom for many years he had placed no trust since travelling from Afghanistan to Europe. He now works for that man in a carpet shop in the centre of Prague, and the family lives in a rented flat in the suburbs, in a quarter where foreigners are beginning to outnumber Czechs.

Last updated 14 November 2011

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