The Czech government late yesterday announced it will temporarily introduce visa requirements for Romanian citizens as of 1 October. The government says the measure -- proposed by the Interior Ministry -- is necessary because of a sharp increase in the number of Romanian asylum seekers in the Czech Republic. But the Czech Foreign Ministry -- which opposes the measure -- says it is not clear whether the Czech authorities will be able to enforce the decision so soon.
Prague, 30 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The Czech government yesterday said it will temporarily suspend its bilateral agreement with Romania on visa-free travel as of 1 October.
The government says the measure was demanded by the Interior Ministry following an increase in the number of Romanian asylum seekers and illegal immigrants in the Czech Republic.
Czech government spokesman Libor Roucek told RFE/RL that the number of Romanians seeking asylum in the Czech Republic rose sharply this year and now accounts for over 11 percent of all asylum seekers.
"The reason [for the restriction] is the sharp increase of the asylum seekers from Romania. If we look at the numbers in the year 2000, for the entire year, only 510 Romanian citizens asked for asylum. But if we look at the current figures, in early June [the figure] was already more than 800 Romanians. That is more than 11 percent of all applicants."
Roucek says that while last year the number of applicants oscillated month to month, this year the figure grew steadily by 30 to 40 percent a month. According to Interior Ministry statistics, Romanians now account for 17 percent of the overall capacity of Czech refugee camps.
The Interior Ministry also says Romanians headed the list last year of those trying to illegally cross the border either into the Czech Republic or from this country into Germany. More than 4,200 Romanians were caught trying to cross these borders in 2000 -- that is, 13 percent of a total of almost 33,000.
The Czech government says the introduction of visa requirements for Romanians is based on a provision of the 1991 Czech-Romanian agreement on free movement ,which enables each side to temporarily suspend visa-free travel by citizens of the other. The measure will not apply to holders of diplomatic or service passports and will not affect Romanian citizens already on Czech territory.
Roucek also told RFE/RL that Czech authorities have problems with crimes committed by Romanians, mainly in Prague, even though most of these are petty crimes like theft or begging.
"There is a problem with crime, and several levels of crime. There is, for instance, begging -- the vast majority of beggars in Prague are the citizens of Romania. There is another issue and that is the illegal border crossing. And another issue is the petty crime in the Czech Republic -- that is, for instance, pickpocketing, this type of small crime, small stealing in the department stores, in the buses in Prague."
But the Czech Foreign Ministry says it is opposed to the introduction of visa restrictions for Romanians, since the European Union itself is contemplating dropping visa restrictions for Romanians beginning next year.
EU justice and interior ministers next month (27 Sept.) are meeting to decide whether to drop visa restrictions for Romanians starting in January 2002. Analysts say their decision will probably be affirmative.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Ales Pospisil told our correspondent that, under these conditions, the Czech government's decision is poorly timed.
"We are of the opinion that at a time when the EU is changing its visa regime toward Bulgaria and Romania, in the sense that Bulgarian -- and probably by the beginning of next year, even Romanian -- citizens won't need visas when they are traveling to European countries, we think this is not a lucky decision to change our visa policy toward these two countries in the respect that, unlike the EU, we will require a visa regime."
Pospisil acknowledged the problems that Czech authorities have with Romanian illegal immigrants and criminals. But he said he thinks Czech police and other officials should do a better job of preventing crime and illegal immigration instead of imposing travel restrictions on all Romanians.
Romanian Prime Minister Adrian Nastase today said the Czech government decision was caused by those Romanians who are illegally traveling abroad and vowed to take action against them.
And government spokesman Claudiu Lucaci told RFE/RL the Romanian cabinet today begins work on concrete measures against Romanians who illegally cross foreign borders.
"The Romanian government is discussing today an emergency bill declaring the illegal crossing of a foreign border by a Romanian citizen a crime similar to the illegal crossing of the Romanian border. Thus we will be able to punish crimes which until now could not be punished. Besides, we are contemplating administrative measures against perpetrators, such as the temporary confiscation of travel documents."
It is not yet clear whether Czech officials will be able to enforce the visa restriction for Romanians as early as 1 October. Foreign Ministry spokesman Pospisil thinks the deadline is too tight.
"It's not that clear, because we think it is too early to come up with all technical provisions, measures, and steps to make it happen, so I wouldn't take this date -- 1 October -- as the date that could be carved into marble."
Czech authorities say that even if they manage to introduce the measure on time, it may be only temporary. If the EU next month decides to drop visa restrictions for Romanians, the Czech measure might be canceled even before it comes into force.
(NCA's Jeremy Bransten contributed to this report.)