Czech lessons (ČTK): Not all foreigners are able to study Czech. (ČTK)Not all foreigners are able to study Czech. (ČTK)

Starting January, all foreigners interested in obtaining permanent residence status in the Czech Republic will need to take a Czech language exam. The first aspirants have already done so in advance. Project coordinator at the Centre for Integration of Foreigners, Vladislav Günter, however, is not so certain that mandatory Czech is necessarily a good means of integrating foreigners.

Can a mandatory Czech exam help foreigners integrate into society?

The Czech language exam is a relatively transparent way to test whether a foreigner makes at least some minimal effort at integrating. The question is to what extent is minimal language ability useful. The exams are not completely fair if, along with them, we don’t make some systemic changes that give foreigners access to Czech lessons. Not all foreigners here live in conditions that enable them to study. And we in large part help set these conditions. For a number of foreigners, labourers in some assembly plant, for instance, it is practically impossible today – given the financial and time limitations. So we will see whether mandatory Czech exams will be a motivation for foreigners or one of many obstacles.

What other problems do you see in the integration of foreigners in the Czech Republic?

Foreigners who try to obtain permanent residence status are in a relatively uncertain position here. That pushes them into the arms of various agencies that have no real interest in the integration of their “clients”. It is necessary to ensure that foreigners have better, more equal living and working conditions. For the moment, we are doing relatively little for them. There are few programmes for them, and whatever is on offer very diluted. These language exams are a typical example. It is something that was planned for a long time, but the preparation for the launch is very last minute. The pilot phase of the project was shortened to two months.

Are we seeing different nationalities among the foreigners arriving now?

There are fewer Ukrainians because their wages at home are growing, and it’s no longer as profitable for them to travel. They are being replaced by people from the east. From Mongolia, Vietnam. What we’re talking about here is migrant workers. The overall makeup of foreigners here doesn’t change so much. Russian speakers dominate.

How is Europe as a whole doing at integrating foreigners?

There is no such thing as a European system for the integration of foreigners. Every country deals with its own problems alone. And every state’s foreign population is different in terms of where they are coming from and for what reasons. These different circumstances then influence the different policies.

What European country could we use as an example?

Britain is definitely interesting. The municipalities, regions, the state and NGOs complement one another. We could also look to the Scandinavian countries for some positive inspiration. The most important, though, is whether the acquired experience and the new challenges lead to a change in the approach and character of integration programmes. I would say that the above-mentioned countries are much more effective in this respect than we are.

This article was translated with permission by the Prague Daily Monitor.