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13 September, 2012  ▪  Valeria Burlakova

Under Foreign Skies

Czech multiculturalists teach their compatriots to respect Ukrainians

Rallies to support Ukrainians often take place in the Czech Republic where only officially, there are over 100,000 Ukrainian workers. Activists make videos, calling on people to treat migrants properly. The Ukrainian Week decided to gain an insight into this solidarity to find out how permanent or random it is.


At the end of April 2012 there was a rally in the Czech town of Břeclav. People poured into the streets in the thousands, carrying posters saying “While the government sleeps, the gypsies kill” and “Stop the Gypsy terror”. They all rallied behind a teenager, who was beaten up by a Roma group in the middle of April. According to the Czech media, they asked him for a cigarette and began to punch him when the 15-year old said he had none. The teenager ended up in hospital with internal injuries, broken ribs and doctors had to remove a kidney.

Petro, the beaten teenager, is Ukrainian. The Czechs went on a demonstration on his behalf. Is it because they feel the brotherhood of the two nations or are they worried that this could happen to everyone – Ukrainian, Vietnamese or Czech? Or is there another reason?  

It turned out that the Břeclav rally was organized by the Labour Party of Social Justice (Dělnická strana sociální spra­vedlnosti, DSSS), a radical rightist movement. Czech journalist, František Kostlán, believes that Czech ultra-rightists hate all migrants and will only stand up for them if this can be used against the Romas, whom they see as their biggest enemies.   

“This party has conducted an anti-migrant campaign for years, and decided to use the Ukrainian family and its misfortune for their propaganda, to fuel an ethnic conflict,” claims Mr. Kostlán. “We do not want a country full of immigrants from the former USSR, Balkan States, Asia and Far East.”


Migrace is a Czech NGO that is the complete opposite of the DSSS. It shot a video about a Czech student, and a Ukrainian woman cleaning windows in his apartment. In the video, the student cannot find the notes in which he solved a math problem and begins to shout at the housekeeper. While he is yelling, the woman solves all the equations. A narrator says that the woman is Lyuba Hryhorenko. She taught mathematics in a Lviv school for eight years before going to work in the Czech Republic. The video in support of migrant workers ends with the question: “Do you know who is cleaning your home?”   

This is the title of the campaign Migrace is conducting, in which it informs migrants about how they can protect their rights in the Czech Republic and how the Czechs can help the foreigners working for them. Migrace members say that they wanted to start a dialogue with the Czechs and tell them “that these people also deserve respect.”

However, Ukrainians who live in the Czech Republic do not think that many Czechs share Migrace’s ideals. “I wouldn’t overestimate the impact of this video,” says Oleksa Livinsky, Editor-in-Chief of Porohy, a Ukrainian-language publication in the Czech Republic.

This video is not the first move to support Ukrainians in the Czech Republic. Back in 2007, a draft law on foreigners residing in the country sparked public protests. The Consultation Center for Human Rights and Civil Liberties and the Prague Multicultural Center initiated a petition, signed by dozens of NGOs, stated the above-mentioned newspaper. NGOs were most frustrated about the provisions of the draft law, which made life more difficult for foreigners who marry Czech citizens. Under the draft law, foreigners would only be granted permanent residency in the Czech Republic after two years of marriage, not immediately after it.


The Ukrainian Week decided to find out how average Czechs treat migrants, including Ukrainians, today. “There are many migrants in the Czech Republic. They are mostly Romas. That’s why the most widespread association people have, is that a migrant is a Roma,” says Denisa, 22, from Prague. “I think almost 99% of Romas cannot exist in normal society. They refuse to work, get free housing and live on social security, causing trouble in return. They beat people up and steal. Every time the government tries to do something about it they start shouting about racism.”

“I live in the historical heart of Prague. Hardly any Czechs live here,” Jan, 26, says. “But there are many stores here owned by people from the former USSR, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria. They sell T-shirts saying I got drunk in Prague and matrioshka dolls that have absolutely nothing to do with the Czech culture. I don’t like that. I’ve never seen massive support or protection for migrants from the Czechs.”

“Personally, I don’t care where someone comes from,” he claims. “But you have to learn the language and comply with the local laws if you come to live in a country, not just enjoy beautiful architecture. Closed communities of the “state within a state” kind, are harmful for the country. Among other things, they create language barriers for migrants, but that’s more about Asian migrants. However, the Czechs do not think very well of Ukrainians either. That’s a pity because we are all Slavs, Czechs and Ukrainians. It would be good to get along better but it’s often hard to overcome a bad image. It’s a difficult course.”

“I don’t mind protecting some migrants. It doesn’t matter what country they come from if they are ready to work here and pay taxes,” Alex, 30, comments. “But I think they should take tests in the Czech language and history. As for Ukrainians, don’t get me wrong, but they are known for drinking a lot, causing a lot of problems, cheating and stealing. Don’t take it personally. I know some Ukrainians. They are good people and they work well. But they still drink a lot.” Also, Alex has heard much about Ukrainian criminality.

“I like Ukrainians as a nation. I think we have a common base. It’s not just the language and Slavic soul, but also history,” Helena, 39, says. “Both of our countries have been occupied by stronger states. And I’m sorry for people who work here because it’s not their conscious choice. They’ve come here because their countries are poor and they have to support their families. That’s why they do unskilled work far from home. Unfortunately, that’s the truth about Ukrainians in the Czech Republic.”


With time, migrants are forced to overcome more and more bureaucratic obstacles. On 1 January, the Czech parliament passed the new employment law. “Now, the Labour Ministry bars employment centres from issuing work permits to foreigners without qualifications and requires qualified workers to nostrify their diplomas,” explains Oleksa Livinsky. “Earlier this was only required of foreign doctors and lawyers. Now it’s a requirement for all migrants from “third countries.” Say, a 40-year old plasterer has to go to a vocational school with his Ukrainian diploma to get confirmation that his education level is in line with Czech standards. He may even have to pass exams again.”

In addition, the new law bans HR agencies from acting as intermediaries in employing non-EU citizens. “This means that non-EU citizens can find jobs but have to find them themselves,” Mr. Livinsky notes. “An employee cannot have his employment record and get his salary through an agency if he actually works somewhere at a plant.”    

“We have received complains on the amendments and discussed them with all parties,” the Czech Ministry of the Interior informed The Ukrainian Week. “Now, we are working on new legislation and getting comments on it from the public.”

Sadly, the reputation of Ukrainian migrants in the Czech Republic is still negative, despite the efforts of the Czechs, trying to protect them through legislation and encouraging respect for migrant workers. Still, one good deed is worth more than a million words, even if they are unpleasant. Especially if it leads to positive changes. 

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