Vietnamese seek Czech “Eden”

Fear of crackdown motivates crush of new applicants

By Kimberly Ashton
Staff Writer, The Prague Post
October 17th, 2007

Legal assistant Phan Kien Cuong says he feels rooted and likes “Czech women … and historical buildings.”

Phan Kien Cuong arrived in the Czech Republic in 1993 to join his father, who had studied electrical engineering here and owned a business.Now, Cuong says, “I don’t feel as if I am in a foreign country.” He’s fluent in the language, has studied at local schools and appreciates “Czech women, beer and historical buildings.” He works as a legal assistant and says he feels respected by his native colleagues. “I feel rooted and integrated into Czech society,” Cuong, 28, says.But as a growing number of Vietnamese immigrants move to the country, officials worry that fewer and fewer will have experiences similar to Cuong’s. “There is a difference between the applicants [then and now],” says deputy foreign minister Jaroslav Bašta. “Now there are Vietnamese who come [here] to do business … [But] also the phenomenon of recruiting unqualified Vietnamese people for labor and manual work is on the rise.” Before, he says, applicants were more likely to be educated and to have connections to the country.In recent years, there has been a crush of Vietnamese visa applicants.In 2001, about 900 Vietnamese citizens applied. So far this year authorities have received 10,041 applications from Vietnamese people, Bašta says.Since 2000, the local Vietnamese population has risen 73 percent; it has quintupled to about 46,000 since 1994, according to numbers provided by the Czech Statistical Office. Vietnamese are now the third-largest group of foreigners in country, behind Slovaks and Ukrainians. Bašta says he thinks the rise of Vietnamese applicants comes from a combination of a few factors: the fear that the Czech Republic will crack down on visas after it joins Schengen, organizations in Vietnam that promote visas as well as an image of the country as a good place for Vietnamese people to live.“Someone told them that the Czech Republic is Eden for them,” Bašta says.This “someone” is often a representative from an organization that sees a money-making opportunity in offering assistance to secure a visa. “Migration is a very similar business to smuggling drugs,” Bašta says. One common ploy people use to improve their chances at getting a visa is to join what Bašta calls “so-called cooperatives,” since membership in such groups is one criterion on which applicants are judged. The problem is that some of these organizations are charging upwards of 10,000 Kč [$500] — or ten times the average monthly salary in Vietnam — for this dubious membership, he says.Applicants have also been scammed by people who claim to be organizing queues outside the Czech Embassy in Hanoi and charge them $100 to stand in line, according to Bašta. Recently, he says, Vietnamese police has cracked down on this operation. He notes that the area in front of the embassy is not under the control of Czech authorities.Dismal prospectsDespite these schemes, Vietnamese citizens in general have a worse chance of getting a visa today than they did a decade ago, when the visa-refusal rate hovered around 10 percent: Today it’s about 50 percent, Bašta says. He thinks this high refusal rate is reflective of the type of applicants who are applying. “I’m afraid that the people waiting for visas in Hanoi are people without a chance for success in the Czech Republic,” he says.Those who do make it here are still often “young, uneducated, have the wrong type of visa [to work] and have no money to return,” Bašta says. “It is now a big problem for the Vietnamese community … [and] it could be an economic and security risk for the Czech Republic in the future,” he says.What the country needs is a clearly defined immigration policy, he says.“In fact, we have no immigration policy,” and instead just react to pressure from applicants, according to Bašta. He says he hopes that the country’s inclusion in Schengen next year will help define immigration policy and that in any case the country will reduce the number of visas it grants.But those who work with Vietnamese immigrants say they are far from being a potential burden on the local economy: the country needs the labor new arrivals provide.“More and more people come here to work manually. Many factories struggle with the lack of manual workers and they impatiently await the arrival of Vietnamese workers,” says Eva Pechová, chairwoman of the Club Hanoi Civic Association in Prague. Also, she says, an increasing number of Vietnamese students are also coming here.The Vietnamese community overall, and in particular those who have lived here since infancy, is well-integrated into local society, she says.“This group of people is trying to improve the impression of the Vietnamese community in the Czech Republic,” Pechová says.— Naďa Černá and Hela Balínová contributed to this report.

Kimberly Ashton can be reached at