Ukrainian refugees become populist targets in Czechia

Czechs have opened their arms to welcome the wave of Ukrainian refugees fleeing the violence unleashed by the Russian army since February 2022.

The country is the top host of Ukrainians on a capita basis in the EU, with 32.2 refugees per thousand people, followed by Poland (26.6) and Estonia (25.8), as compared with an EU average of 9.1.

The plight of civilians from a country whose westernmost part was once part of interwar Czechoslovakia stirred genuine sympathy towards Ukraine. In an extraordinary upsurge of civic activism, Czechs welcomed refugees into their homes and launched numerous charity drives, including collections for hard-to-find hospital equipment, as well as for weaponry for the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

Last October, the campaign “A Gift for Putin” raised nearly CZK30mn (€1.24mn) for a modernised T-72 Avenger tank delivered to the Ukrainian army, with 11,288 participating in the campaign.

Even though around a third of the total of 555,639 asylum seekers have since returned to Ukraine, another 364,319 remain in Czechia, and the Ministry of Interior estimates that about a tenth of them now plan to stay for good.

But less than a year and a half after the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine, many refugees are still trapped in dire circumstances. Two-thirds of the mostly women, children and seniors who fled to Czechia live below the income poverty line, according to a study by social policy research platform PAQ Research and the Sociological Institute of Czech Academy of Sciences from August 11.

Moreover, government largesse towards the refugees has now been severely cut back, as the centre-right coalition looks to slash the budget deficit. The new shelter rules, known as Lex Ukraine V, significantly curtail the solidarity payments of CZK3,000-15,000 (€127-633, depending on the number of people sheltered) a month to those who provide housing to Ukrainians. As of July 1, Ukrainians must pay for the housing themselves or from humanitarian aid payments determined by applicants’ income and savings.

Moreover, populists and Russian disinformation sites are using the refugee influx to stir social tensions and attack the government, and are achieving some traction, particularly among other marginalised groups such as Roma (gypsies).

“It is a systematic problem which will catch up on us,” Magda Faltova, head of the Association for Integration and Migration NGO, told bne Intellinews.

Cheap labour

Ukrainians have long been one of the biggest immigrant groups in Czechia, with the men working typically on building sites and the women as cleaners, both often in the black economy.

The Ukrainian refugees were often much more skilled but they have struggled to find work commensurate with their qualifications. Although 67% of economically active Ukrainian refugees obtained jobs, and this share keeps growing steadily, over half of them are working in less qualified jobs than they did in Ukraine and 41% work significantly below their qualifications. Only 9% of Ukrainians had manual jobs in Ukraine, but 45% are in manual labour in Czechia.

“These people work, but we have to look in what positions,” says Faltova, adding that the PAQ survey collected data in June before the new stricter government aid regime kicked in on July 1, so the poverty figures are only likely to get worse.

Journalist Sasa Uhlova, whose work on minorities in Czechia earned her international acclaim, joined Faltova’s warning, saying that the refugee situation could magnify the social problem of Ukrainian workers.

She painted the long-term reality of Ukrainians in Czechia to bne Intellinews in bleak terms: “Ukrainians serve as cheap labour for Czech industry, for which cheap labour is essential.”

Many Ukrainians are trapped in low paying black market jobs because the system of government cash payments are designed in a way that motivates them to hide their income from the authorities.

“For the calculation of humanitarian aid, 100% of [a given] household’s income is considered. If legal income is raised by CZK1 then aid is lowered by CZK1 – overall income is not increasing,” PAQ Research founder and CEO Daniel Prokop said. “This [situation] de-motivates them from raising their legal income, and the state is making a loss from smaller tax collection,” Prokop explained.

Tensions with Czech Roma

Even if the reality is very different, the apparent generosity of government aid to the Ukrainian refugees has created tensions with another marginalised group in the country, the Czech Roma, who have recently been pushed into an even more vulnerable situation by soaring inflation and energy prices.

“Czech Roma constitute a minority which is a victim of [the country’s] structural racism in the long term,” including “segregation in education, housing or employment. The state failed to secure greater integration in the past 30 years,” Uhlova says.

Czech Roma are particularly sensitive about the extensive media coverage of assistance to Ukrainians. Faltova points out that many vulnerable Czech Roma felt left behind when authorities managed to house the incoming Ukrainians, while Roma families in need continue to seek adequate housing.

At the same time, Roma noted the discrimination against fellow Ukrainian Roma, many of whom did not receive any assistance and were forced to sleep at train stations with their children after fleeing war-stricken homes.

Consequently, “animosity towards the government and Ukrainians is, particularly among the poorer Czech Roma, very strong,” Uhlova says. In her opinion, this stems from a “feeling that they [Roma] are not at home here” and “now someone strange came and was offered help while they were not”.

Tensions came to head in June when a Roma youth died of stab wounds suffered during a brawl with a foreigner, whom media have referred to as a Ukrainian national. This story was enhanced by web fantasies of “vans allegedly driven by Ukrainians and kidnapping Roma children”, Uhlova observed.

Several rallies in Roma ghettos have since been  held, with community leaders demanding police action.

Czech Elf Group, an NGO monitoring Kremlin-backed propaganda in the Czech information space, noted in its latest monthly report that following the June incident, there is “an effort to radicalise and mobilise the [Roma] minority” on social media.

Radical rightwing populists – who also tend to oppose military help to Ukraine and "over generous" support for refugees from the war – have also been quick to take advantage of the tensions between Ukrainian refugees and Roma, even if they are more used to attacking Roma for being work-shy or thieves to win support among poorer “white” voters.

Opposition leader and populist billionaire Andrej Babis has appealed to Czech Roma, touring some of the ghettoised communities during his recent presidential campaign. Far-right leader Tomio Okamura, leader of the Czexit party SPD, has openly blamed Ukrainians in Czechia, applying collective guilt to them when reports of incidents appear in the media.

“The security situation around Ukrainians is getting out of the government’s hands,” Okamura stated in a CNN Prima television station discussion with Minister of Interior Vit Rakusan.

Faltova says that both Roma and Ukrainians now “feel the tension” and “it will increase if the problems of the Roma community remain unaddressed”.