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A Migrant’s Story

28 / 10 / 2015

I am a foreigner. A migrant. I live and work in Prague, the city that has become my adopted home. No one forced me to come here, nor even invited me – I decided to come here myself. I have been warmly welcomed by Czech people and love being a part of Czech society. As a foreigner and a migrant with such a positive experience here I now watch in disbelief at the stance the country is taking to the ongoing refugee crisis. 

I am a foreigner. A migrant. I live and work in Prague, the city that has become my adopted home. No one forced me to come here, nor even invited me – I decided to come here myself. I have been warmly welcomed by Czech people and love being a part of Czech society. As a foreigner and a migrant with such a positive experience here I now watch in disbelief at the stance the country is taking to the ongoing refugee crisis. 

I am a foreigner. A migrant. I live and work in Prague, the city that has become my adopted home. No one forced me to come here, nor even invited me – I decided to come here myself. I have been warmly welcomed by Czech people and love being a part of Czech society. As a foreigner and a migrant with such a positive experience here I now watch in disbelief at the stance the country is taking to the ongoing refugee crisis. 

“Sit Down! Watch this, its important. You’ll remember it for the rest of your life.”

My Mum probably didn‘t know it then, but she had sparked a chain of events that would have great importance for how – and where – I live my life and for how and why I am writing this article. Although I was born and grew up in the UK, I live and work in Prague and have lived most of my adult life in Central and Eastern Europe. Time and again when people have asked me – often somewhat incredulously – why I am so interested in this part of the world, I come back to these words and to the impact of the reportage that I was about to watch. Now I come back to them again as a migrant living in the Czech Republic and contemplating the country’s response to the migration crisis.

Faraway Countries

By the late summer of 1989, I remained somewhat ignorant of the momentous change sweeping through Europe, through the world that year. The semi-free Polish elections, the re-burial of Imre Nagy and the massacre on Tiananmen Square had been on the nightly news but other things had preoccupied me as a nine year old during the long summer holidays. Breaking my nose while playing tennis and persuading my parents that my brother and I needed Coke ‘spinners’ (yo-yos that were that year’s marketing gimmick), were more important.

However, there was clearly something going on. Queues of strange looking cars at dusty border crossings, people behind fences, queuing for coaches, outside embassies, rushing through open gates, looking out of tents in brightly coloured nylon, boarding trains and waving, smiling. My parents patiently explained the difference between Budapest and Bucharest, between East and West Germany, but the growing demonstrations in Leipzig and the resolution of the refugee crisis at the German embassy in Prague were lost in the start of the school year and the football season. Until then.

“Sit Down! Watch this, its important. You’ll remember it for the rest of your life.”

In November the more casual, although parentally-encouraged news watching that I had become accustomed was interrupted by my Mum’s instruction. Now I had to watch, but I did so happily, fascinated by what I saw – people streaming through floodlit concrete and wire, adults in leather and denim jackets embracing in the street, the sounds of cheering, of hammers, of accented English. Night after night I saw people of whom I knew little standing in faraway squares and streets, amidst architectures that looked very different from England. Parental explanations ran side by side with the flow of events, although the lives of those who had been behind walls and curtains still seemed obscure and not to fit the pattern of the countries that we learned about at school.

Iron keys shaken from velvet gloves in Prague eventually gave way on the TV to the low thuds of rifle fire, the rat-a-tat of machine guns, flags with holes in and soldiers rolling across the streets of Bucharest. However, a window had been opened on another world.

Seeing for Myself

Fast-forward to 2001 and, having completed my undergraduate studies, I was ready to backpack my way round Europe, ready to head to Berlin and on to Prague. Arriving late at night in the old Hlavni Nadrazi – then still almost equal parts train station, gambling den and unofficial homeless shelter – I was met with the most helpful and friendly of welcomes, which was to be characteristic of my future experiences in the Czech Republic. Upon seeing my backpack a Czech student asked if I was looking for a place to stay. Rather than mumbling some tips and inking some vague locations on the map in my travel guide, he helped me get a metro ticket and guided me personally to the Clown and Bard hostel in Žižkov.

Here I not only met people from around the world, but also the Czech friends they had made and together that summer, we wandered the streets of Prague, a place like nowhere else I found on my Interail trip. The atmosphere seemed more grown up and less nannyish than the Britain I had left behind, but brimmed with youthful possibility and potential. In all I ended up spending more than a quarter of my whole trip here but it still wasn‘t enough – I knew I had to come back.

I enrolled on a Masters course that gave the option to study part of the degree at Charles University. We learned about Czech and Central and East European histories and politics, about postcommunist transitions, EU accession processes and (thanks to Ivo Slosarcik) Czech film – a heady combination of Hussites, Hapsburgs, Havel and Hrebejk. The introduction to daily routine, to the metro at peak times, to student cafes and to the coldest winter I had known deepened my enchantment with this new world. Easy travel and the presence of different nationalities of foreigners than in the UK broadened its appeal as I became increasingly aware of Central Europe’s simultaneous (and often baffling) connections and disconnections – linguistic, architectural, historical and geographical – to both East and West – as we had called them at school.

We were constantly being told by other expats that we had missed it, missed the wild and free times of the 90s’ – that the party was over, but that wasn‘t how it felt. Studying politics, society and culture it seemed like the right place at the right time, on the verge of gaining EU recognition and with so much to offer Europe – so much that was still largely unknown.

Part of the Club

Many of the benefits of EU membership may not have been immediately apparent, but Czechs, Poles and others who joined in 2004 could now freely move to and work in the UK, Like many others, my parents’ experience of this influx of Central and East Europeans was positive – as my Dad noted “you get a better class of conversation with the barman now, they’ve read Kundera and Milosz!” They will never make the headlines in the same way that UKIP’s xenophobic hysteria does, but these small everyday meetings are one of the main success stories of EU integration – and of the demystification of ‘Eastern Europe’.

However, what was flowing from the UK to Prague was more concerning. Growing connectedness to the wider world saw a rise in tourism in general, but the mid-2000s also saw the rise of the stag party culture, of foreigners treating the city as the just wild enough ‘East’ where anything goes and what goes on tour stays on tour. Back in the city between postings on EU missions, I saw the growing corporatization of the city, the slicker adverts, the generic fonts on the repaired facades and the increasing presence of large multinationals. This came with the mixed feelings of being able to get decent curry sauce but in a city that looked more like the places where I grew up. For better and for worse, Prague was becoming less exotic and more connected to the circuits of ‘normal European life’.

This was in marked contrast to the situation in Ukraine, where I worked for the EU in 2006 and 2007 before resigning in frustration at the Union’s treatment of Ukrainians, which differed greatly from the inclusive approach that it had taken to Czechs. Driving back to Prague from Odessa on my last journey with diplomatic status made the consequences of these different approaches even clearer in the contrast between the queues at the Ukrainian-Polish border and the easy crossing from Poland to Czech Republic, which would soon become part of the Schengen zone.

Looking Deeper

Having spent another enjoyable and productive year in Prague in 2008, which again showed that this is a great place to experiment and to get things done I returned to the UK to embark on a PhD programme. However, my research on borders in Czech Republic, Poland and Ukraine meant that I could return for fieldwork from 2011-2013.

Searching for the material traces of the borders that Schengen left behind I circumnavigated the Republic, visiting 102 of the 103 former major border crossing points between the Czech Republic and its neighbours (Jezova-Iglbach deep in Sumava still eludes me). These sites now contain formal and informal memorials and monuments to the constraints of the past, but also act as testaments to the freedoms of the present, which Czechs put to great use whether for shopping in Dresden or visiting galleries in Vienna.

Writing and teaching about architecture and politics during my fieldwork changed the way I walked through the Czech cities but, criss-crossing the country and exploring for fun as well as for research, I was welcomed from Varnsdorf to Zlin in the same friendly, curious yet polite way that I had so often found in Prague. I was intrigued to see the burgeoning tourist industries around the country and happy that more people from abroad would have the chance to see the country’s fascinating multi-layered histories and rich, lively present.

It was also clear to see the changes that had taken place since I had last lived in Prague. The rise of farmers markets, the ‘fourth tap’ micro-brewing revolution and the nascent hipster culture, which for all its faults has at the very least brought better coffee and a wider selection of cafes to drink it in and has helped challenge the hegemony of the big brewers and their tied pubs. There seemed a greater willingness to adapt international trends to local conditions, to take pride in various aspects of Czech culture and cuisine and to reckon with the complexities of the past rather than simply condemn it.

Watching and Learning from History

I’m now back in Prague again. This time for good I hope. I’m happy to have been welcomed into a job that I love in the city that I want to live in, a city that still amazes and fascinates me. It is wonderful to live in a Czech society that is more prosperous, more secure and more free than at any time in its history, which benefits hugely from being part of the EU and which still has enormous potential to realise.

This makes the response to the migration crisis here especially appalling. Given his track record and in the context of a debate that Pavel Bělobrádek rightly described as having become increasingly “facsised”, it was not surprising, although still shocking that President Zeman felt able to say that “no one invited” the refugees to come here. No one invited me to come here either, yet I have been warmly welcomed and have been given the chance to contribute to this society. I chose to come here, refugees did not choose the terrible circumstances that they are fleeing, but the vast majority of them will also want to contribute and will be able to – as so much research on migration shows. I have benefitted greatly from a more open attitude – so have many Czechs who have moved to other parts of the EU. We can all benefit from a more open attitude to refugees.

The government’s refusal to support the quota system or any other meaningful form of solidarity with fellow EU member states amounts to a callous betrayal of both the refugees and the responsibility to share the burdens as well as the benefits of European integration. This approach sets the Czech Republic at odds with many of its European partners and shows a staggering hypocrisy given how Czech refugees have been treated in the past. It also threatens to undermine the mutual trust that is needed to maintain the Schengen zone – and the EU – as viable propositions.

This is again in stark contrast to how Czechs have been treated by the EU, where a generosity of spirit was needed to do the right thing and make the commitment to inclusive enlargement in 2004. The kind of forces that were against including ‘Eastern Europe’ in the EU claimed that it was too different, too scarred by history and ingrained social practices to be properly integrated, too poor to contribute.

I have spent a good proportion of my professional and personal life in the last twelve years trying to explain to people in ‘Western Europe’ that ‘Eastern Europe’ is not what they think it is – that it is not backward, grey, intolerant or miserable; that people here have been misrepresented as xenophobes and misunderstood as selfish or unfriendly introverts. To say that the response to the migration crisis has made this task harder would be a gross understatement.

As a child watching walls fall, Central Europe was a site of hope. Now we can see rising fences and irresponsible intolerance. The migration debate in the UK may be equally depressing, but Czechs are more connected and more obviously benefit from EU membership than Brits do. I hope that this country, my adopted home, for which I care deeply and where I want to raise a family, will fashion a response to the migration crisis that is in keeping with its European values and EU responsibilities. What we do now is important and it will be remembered for the rest of our lives.

This story was originally published in The Reporter Magazine in CzechThe Reporter Magazine is an independent media outlet supported by The Reporter Foundation. See more info in English.

The author works as Co-ordinator of the Centre for European Security at the Institute of International Relations  Prague. He is Editor-in-Chief of New Perspectives: Interdisciplinary Journal of Central & East European Politics and International Relations. More info here 

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