Milan Chovanec is a man of the people. He looks the part, thinks the part, and talks the part, certainly when talk turns to refugees. “They are pitiable, but we won’t allow them to ruin the country,” he recently told the daily Právo. The minister of the interior is also first deputy chairman of the Czech Social Democratic Party, which originally arose from an ethos of international cooperation and solidarity with the needy, although he very infrequently speaks as a social democrat. Mainly, he acts like a common citizen in the year 2015, and that means he is frustrated.

Fear and uncertainty have beset the Czech Republic since the European Commission began seriously talking of enforcing its plan to distribute refugees around Europe according to a quota system. Rejection of unknown Arabs and Africans held, for now, in camps in the south of Europe is bringing together small villages and large cities, left-wing ministries, the right-wing opposition, the Communists and the secret services. Long divided, this society is pulling on a single rope, as though it has finally found its national interest: to prevent the arrival of 1,800 people from Syria and East African Eritrea.

Forgotten successes

It isn’t all that long ago that this country dealt with much larger numbers of refugees without anyone getting especially worked up about it. In the mid-1990s, 3,500 people, most of them Muslim, came here from Bosnia. About 2,000 of them stayed. “I don’t know how much it cost the Czech people, but they took good care of us,” says Džana Popovič, a Sarajevan who settled in Prague. “We could work, so active people managed to integrate quickly. The government offered permanent residence to all who had jobs and housing.”

At the end of the ’90s, after another Balkan war, a thousand asylum seekers came from poor Kosovo. The government of the day, headed by Miloš Zeman (Czech president since 2013), rented private pensions in villages and towns across the country to accommodate the migrants. Once again, the country carried out a tough job. The Kosovans returned home after the civil war. “The Czechs handled it. We had everything we needed,” recalls Hanushe Blakčori, from Brno, one of a few Kosovans who stayed. “My co-workers say they are against refugees because they aren’t from Europe, they’ll stay here and become terrorists. But I don’t believe that. Really, they’re normal people who are fleeing from terrorism. I don’t understand what there is to fear.”

The challenge we face today is comparable with the refugee crises of the 1990s. The European Commission has proposed two quota plans. The first would see 1,328 people from overstressed Italy and Greece transferred here over the next two years, and is aimed at helping our partners, whose capacity to handle the record wave of immigrants on the EU’s exterior borders is reaching its limit. This quota would apply only to Syrians, who are fleeing the worst war of the 21st century, and Eritreans escaping the most repressive regime in Africa. There is no question of these people being the “economic migrants” we hear so much about.

The other proposal would allow Czech authorities to select an additional 525 Syrian refugees for transfer here directly from camps in the Middle East, most likely in Jordan.

The Czech Republic should be proud that, quite soon after the Velvet Revolution, it dealt with two refugee crises, gaining experience that helped this confident, relatively rich country (16th richest in the super-rich EU) take up new challenges. Migration experts agree that the Czech asylum and integration system is in much better condition than those of other postcommunist states. But, listening to the current public debate on migration, you’d be excused for wondering how the pride and self-confidence of the ’90s were so quickly forgotten.

Unfriendly to the core?

“We are passing through a kind of childish phase, where we reject everything.” Member of Parliament and sociologist Ivan Gabal, long an analyst of migration and security issues, chooses the words to describe the country’s state of mind.

Mature confidence, and the consequent eagerness to help solve current problems, has given way in the Czech public forum to fear and rejection of quotas. We are in the top five most immigrant-unfriendly countries in Europe, according to the most recent Eurobarometer study.

In an in-depth poll in February, the Median agency tried to pinpoint the reasons for this reject-all attitude. The proportion of foreigners here is among the lowest in the EU and just 40 percent of the population personally know a foreigner, the researchers reported. Only 3 percent of Czechs know anyone of Arab nationality – and it is precisely refugees from the Middle East that people fear the most. The research confirms the observation that those Czechs who fear immigrants most are those who know and meet them the least.

“This fear is not deeply rooted in the Czechs. Rather, it reflects the ways in which we talk about foreigners and migration,” comments Daniel Prokop, a sociologist who heads the Median agency. He notes the unproductive role of the media, which are the main source of information about newcomers in this homogeneous country. An analysis carried out in 2008 by the Newton agency found that 44 percent of news reports about foreigners in the Czech media had a negative tone, 51 percent were neutral and just 5 percent took a positive view.

One other thing emerges from multi-country studies: the Czechs’ lack of confidence as a nation is mirrored in their relative negative feelings about each other. We see ourselves in a worse light than our neighbors do. Prokop thinks this may also contribute to the way in which Czech politicians see their constituents.

These past few weeks, politicians and top officials have often resorted to saying that the public is not prepared for refugees and foreigners, by way of justifying their own resistance to migrant quotas. As though they believe that, at its core, Czech public opinion is irreparably hostile and fearful. “But public opinion is very malleable concerning this topic – 95 percent of people never normally think about migration. They form an opinion quite quickly at the moment it becomes topical,” Prokop explains. “Our political elite, however, lack the fiber to explain anything to the public. They don’t believe the public can be persuaded.”

How much would the arrival of 1,800 asylum seekers cost? Where would they live, what would they do all day? Turning the conversation to such mundane questions might at least help push emotions out of the discourse about refugees and make it more factual. The Ministry of the Interior, naturally, shows no sign of entering into such concrete questions.

Several attempts at arranging a personal meeting at the ministry, or a telephone conversation or e-mailed responses to questions, resulted only in short, general replies. The government supposedly does have plans for dealing with a rise in asylum applications in case it enters the quota system. EU heads of government discussed this in Brussels this week, and mentioned the need to “significantly increase financial and human resources, both in the process of accepting and housing them and of their subsequent integration.” More specific information is not available, and the unwillingness to talk about the subject underlines the Chovanec ministry’s apathy about seeking to calm emotions and engage in serious debate.

Have you done the shopping at Aldi?

Of the approximately one thousand people who requested asylum in the Czech Republic last year, fewer than 400 received it. Fear of refugees is, we can say, fear of someone we don’t know yet. Things are different just across the border.

In Bavaria, which has about the same population as this country, 32,000 requests for asylum have been submitted already this year. By the end of the year the number could rise to between 60,000 and 70,000. Last month alone, on average 250 refugees arrived in Munich every day. And yet, Bavaria is not exactly famed as a multicultural paradise. Its reputation in Germany is rather as the most conservative, and most circumspect about foreigners, state in the federation; asylum seekers who fail to be granted protected status are quickly sent home. For precisely those reasons, we could do worse than seek inspiration from our Bavarian neighbors.

Refugees in BavariaRefugees in Bavaria • Author: Matěj Stránský

Geisenhausen, a town of 6,000, lies about an hour’s drive to the northeast of Munich. Four years ago, local people protested against the proposal to house asylum seekers in a disused former senior citizens’ home. “People learned about it totally by chance, no one in city hall or the district administration told them in advance,” says Barbara Solf-Leipold, herself a newcomer in town then. “All kinds of alarming fliers were circulating. Townspeople were afraid they wouldn’t be able to go out at night, that it would be dangerous for women and children.”

Nothing of the kind happened once the 150-odd refugees moved in. “There was no rise in crime, the protests quieted down. It’s quiet here. Of course, under the surface many are still afraid – you can tell by various hints you pick up standing in line at the baker’s, for instance. Real friendship between the refugees and the locals hasn’t developed,” says the young mother and co-founder of a local association that aids the asylum seekers.

One association member has an office in the asylum house and translates and helps residents understand official letters. Retired school teachers volunteer to teach the newcomers German. “I get more out of it than they do. I have the feeling of doing something useful,” one volunteer teacher says in the classroom one Tuesday afternoon, as a young Roma from Kosovo reads German words written on the blackboard.

Geisenhausen. Fussball. Lidl. Netto. Aldi. “Have you done the shopping at Aldi yet?” the teacher asks, pronouncing the words slowly. “Jawohl,” replies the boy.

Photo by Matěj Stránský

Towns and villages in Bavaria are seeing an explosion of similar volunteer activity. Local associations are springing up practically everywhere the asylum seekers are living. “There are hundreds, nobody really knows how many. Most are run by local women, often older women,” Stephan Dünnwald of the Bavarian refugee council says. Local media run stories about the 70-year-old in a small Alpine village who leads mountain hikes for refugees and the gray-haired Sudeten Germans, with their childhood experience of displacement still fresh, who took a man from Aleppo into their home. Or the young artists who started a hotel in Augsburg, renting rooms to tourists in one part and to refugees in another.

Asylum seekers are distributed in each district according to a quota system for the state of Bavaria, then further dispersed to selected towns and villages. Each sub-district is required to prepare emergency housing for 200 to 300 people. For the first few days, the newcomers may sleep in school gyms, then move on to pensions, unused government buildings or old factories. “Already, investors are buying and renovating empty buildings and renting them to the state as refugee housing,” Dünnwald says.

Paradoxically, he says, as the number of refugees rose, protests declined and people made more overtures to the newcomers. “This happened because the authorities started communicating better with the public. At first, people tended to learn of the arrival of asylum seekers at a late date and they became angry. Now, local politicians are speaking with them in time and openly, so people can get prepared for the new situation.”

Of course, Bavaria is still learning how to deal with the influx, and in some places the authorities haven’t improved their public outreach and people are still protesting. More typical is a situation like that in Gräfelfing, on the western edge of Munich, which is getting ready for the arrival of as many as 200 refugees. Townspeople gathered in the community center last Monday to hear the latest news from the mayor, town officials, the head of a local charity, and a district administration official. Residents, most aged 40 and above, filled every chair, sat on the stairs and lined the walls.

Now it’s question time. “Instead of living in one large house, couldn’t they stay in those two empty buildings nearby? It would be more pleasant than in a big building,” one audience member says. Another man chimes in, “Could we offer young refugees traineeships in local businesses?” “How will they access medical care?” All the questions are to the point and the answers occasionally are met with applause. A sense of solidarity fills the room – an understanding that now is the time to join forces and work to bring the new residents into the fold.

The business community is playing a large part in this transformation of public opinion in Bavaria. Firms complain they can’t find workers, especially for skilled trades. When the Munich trade chamber announced to its members it would help place refugees in apprenticeships and internships, it immediately received 1,200 replies. It is now organizing events where refugees can meet business owners.

“I’m hearing satisfied reactions. The refugees are hard workers and they want to settle down in Germany,” says trade chamber president Georg Schlagbauer, owner of a meat business and a representative of the conservative CSU party on the Munich city council. His view turns the oft-heard opinion that most migrants just want to collect benefits on its head.

“I employ men from Syria and I’m very satisfied with them,” he adds. No activist, Schlagbauer is a practical man who well understands the obstacles placed in the way of integrating Africans and Arabs into the developed German economy. Aside from the language barrier, their schools are at a much lower level than in Germany, leaving them unprepared for work in a modern economy.

“I can understand the concerns, but our task is to come together and help integrate the refugees. Everyone has to do his part. I have no fears,” Schlagbauer sums up. The phrases are banal; more significant is his tone of voice. It expresses confidence in his society’s strength and ability to keep up its end of a bargain – a certainty and healthy self-assurance that the Czechs, face to face with one thousand waiting people, have not shown so far.

Tomáš Lindner is a reporter for the Czech magazine Respekt, where this article originally appeared. Translated by Ky Krauthamer.