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Czech Republic: New Law On Foreigners Causes Confusion

A new, highly restrictive law regulating foreigners living in the Czech Republic took effect on January 1 -- just a month after being passed by parliament. The result has been confusion at home and abroad. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele takes a look at some of the law's provisions and says they're reminiscent of legislation under the Communist system.

Prague, 12 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Foreigners wanting to visit or reside in the Czech Republic received a rude shock at the start of the year.

A new law (no. 326, titled "Law on the Stay of Foreigners on the Territory of the Czech Republic") has greatly complicated procedures for tourists and residents alike. It has also led to enormous queues on the borders.

Our correspondent says that the law results from a dispute between two ministries (Interior and Foreign Affairs) over how best to restrict access to unskilled workers from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The European Union has been increasing its pressure on the Czechs to tighten their borders, both to slow the Czech Republic's role as a transit point for illegal immigrants and to prepare the country for eventual EU membership.

The Interior Ministry has called for introducing visas for people coming from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and other areas. The Foreign Ministry, on the other hand, has resisted instituting a visa regime.

The whole issue is currently being evaluated once again, and modifications to the law are likely to be implemented soon.

Presidential spokesman Ladislav Spacek tells RFE/RL that while President Vaclav Havel did sign the law, it was one of more than 30 pieces of year-end legislation the president had to consider. He says Havel agrees that the restrictions are justified but that the president does not agree with how the law has been implemented so far. In any event, he says there's little the president can do about it now:

"Two issues are concerned here: the understanding of the law and its technical implementation. One can take exception to the norms set by the law, but these norms were adopted by the government, the lower house and the senate. The president adhered to this view because the ministries involved and the parliamentary committees had provided justification for the content of the law. In the law's concrete terms, that is the problems of residency permits and their extension, this is a more complicated matter. The president cannot rely on the Interior and Foreign Affairs ministries to prepare the proper information to tell people [how to comply with the law]."

For foreign visitors and residents alike, complying with the law and its often arcane requirements has proved to be a nightmare.

The 42-page law and related regulations require visitors from most countries to fill out a border document that they then must keep with them until they leave the country. Citizens from certain countries are exempt. Those countries include the U.S., Canada, Japan and EU countries, as well as Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia and Croatia.

The law also requires visitors to show proof of secured accommodation for the period of their stay in the Czech Republic. The law does not define what that proof would entail. But it grants police the right to deny entry to foreigners who cannot prove they have secured accommodation.

All foreign visitors must also present proof of valid health insurance and an adequate amount of finances or a police-approved invitation not older than 90 days. The law does not quantify the minimum amount of currency or other financial instruments a foreigner must have. Instead it says this must be equal to "at least 50 percent of the minimum for living as set by a separate legal regulation."

Our correspondent says the spirit and language of this legislation appears rooted in Communist-era laws intended to close all possible gaps for foreigners to take advantage of the system, but that was so lacking in imagination that it failed to serve its purpose.

What is left unsaid in the law is how much of its enforcement is left up to the individual police officer at the border point or airport. He, after all, is the one who decides whether to allow a visitor in.

A further complicating factor is that the law ends the practice of granting visas on arrival. Effective January 1, in all but a few specific emergency and humanitarian cases, visitors requiring visas must obtain them before coming to the Czech Republic. As a result, several Australian and South Korean businessmen were denied entry at Prague's airport in the first days of January and were put on the next flight out of the country.

The law also stipulates all new applicants for residency permits must file their applications at Czech diplomatic offices abroad. The only foreigners allowed to apply for residency permission on Czech territory are those who already possess a residency permit or are married to a Czech citizen. The law suggests that foreigners with temporary residency status will have both a residency permit and a long-term visa. But the application has been simplified to a single form covering both documents, and questions dating to the Communist era about the identities and whereabouts of the applicants' siblings and grandparents have finally been discarded.

"Permanent residency" status, renewable every five years, will be harder to get. It will be granted solely for purposes of certain types of family reunification, on humanitarian grounds or if granting residency to the person is in the Czech Republic's best interest.

In what may prove to be a blessing in disguise that could help break down some of the bureaucratic barriers between Czechs and foreigners, the law also appears to require foreign residents to request a standard identification number known as a "birth number" (rodne cislo) within 180 days of getting a residency permit. Until now, Czech law did not require foreigners to have a "birth number."