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Czech Republic: Government Drops Plan To Introduce Visas For Romanians

The Czech government yesterday withdrew its plan to impose visa requirements on Romanians from 1 January. The government said the decision was based on a steady decline in the number of illegal immigrants in recent months following firm steps taken by Romanian authorities. The move comes after the European Union on 7 December announced it also was lifting visa requirements for Romanians from next year, after Bucharest harmonized its legislation with the EU and strengthened border and passport security.

Prague, 20 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The Czech government yesterday decided to abandon a plan to impose visas for Romanians beginning in January, citing a recent decline in illegal migration from Romania to the Czech Republic and a decision by the European Union to drop visa restrictions for Romanians.

The decision was made at the recommendation of both the Czech foreign and interior ministers.

The intention to introduce a visa system for Romanians was first announced by the Czech government in August at the request of the Interior Ministry and was due to come into force in October.

Czech officials said at the time that a visa regime would curb the growing number of bogus asylum seekers from Romania, which was put at more than 800 people in the first half of this year, compared to some 500 for the whole of last year.

But the government later pushed back the start date twice, first to November and then to January 2002, due to lack of time and resources to implement the necessary measures.

Czech authorities were also waiting to see whether the EU would drop visa restrictions for Romanians before imposing their own requirements. Yesterday's decision was predictable after the 15-nation bloc on 7 December granted Romanians visa-free rights as of 1 January.

Czech government spokesman Libor Roucek told RFE/RL that the decisions by both Prague and the EU were prompted by a considerable decline in illegal migration from Romania due to firm measures taken by the Romanian government.

"In the last few months, the situation regarding the Romanian refugees and illegal migrants to EU countries improved significantly, so the Czech government took this [EU's] decision -- or opinion -- into consideration and yesterday decided that the visas for Romanians as we planned to introduce them starting [from] 1 January are not necessary," Roucek said.

Roucek said the number of asylum seekers from Romania declined from some 350 in August to only 60 in October, due to significantly improved cooperation between Romanian and Czech police over the past few months.

He also stressed that the Romanian government's long-delayed decision to appoint a Romanian police liaison officer at its Prague embassy bore fruit immediately and -- along with the EU move -- was one of the main reasons why the Czechs abandoned their intention to introduce visas.

"That was a very important decision by the Romanian government," Roucek said. "We appreciate it, and it played a crucial role in the [Czech] government's decision not to introduce the visas because this measure proved to be very effective. And we hope that the officer will stay here and [further] that we will cooperate with the Romanian government in this matter."

Romanian liaison officer Colonel Valentin Balan, who was appointed in September, says that since his arrival, permanent contact between Romanian and Czech law-enforcement agencies has been established, with immediate effects.

Balan told RFE/RL that, with the support of the Czech police, Romanian authorities have been able to identify individuals, groups, and tour operators involved in illegal migration to the Czech Republic and to act swiftly to stop their activities.

"In the last two months, [the Romanian police's] anti-drug and organized crime service, together with [newly established] border control operation centers, identified more than 500 tour operators involved in the smuggling of illegal migrants to the Czech Republic," Balan said.

Balan says Romanian and Czech police are also working together to identify guides who are smuggling people across the border and networks specializing in fake travel documents. Romanian officials, he says, are currently investigating six such cases.

When they first announced their intention to introduce visas for Romanians several months ago, Czech officials also cited petty crimes -- such as pick-pocketing, shoplifting, and begging -- committed by Romanians in Prague as one of the reasons for their decision.

Balan agrees that petty crime still is a problem but points out that Romanian and Czech authorities have already racked up some successes in fighting it. He says that some 18 Romanian citizens posing as Czech police officers were recently apprehended in Prague after attempting to rob foreign tourists while pretending to check their wallets for fake money.

He tells RFE/RL that Czech police were able to mount some successful operations against petty criminals thanks to information provided by Romanian police to their Czech colleagues: "Based on information obtained in Romania, we brought to the attention of the Czech police those persons who are likely to be involved in such types of [petty] crime, and the Czech authorities had immediate success."

Gheorghe Tinca, Romania's new ambassador to the Czech Republic, says that by establishing a permanent post of liaison officer, Romania showed its willingness to step up cooperation with the Czech authorities in tackling the problem of illegal immigration.

Tinca told RFE/RL that he sees Prague's decision as a recognition of Romania's Social Democratic government's determination to resolve the problem of illegal immigration -- and to step up the reform process altogether.

"[The Czech government's decision] first of all recognizes a change -- which I believe is a radical one -- in the Romanian government's approach [toward the illegal migration issue]," Tinca said. "It is well-known that the government wants to initiate an overall change in Romania."

Tinca also said Romania considers the lifting next month of EU visa restrictions both as a reason for pride and an obligation to live up to expectations.

Bucharest has decided that from 1 January, Romanians who want to travel individually to the EU will be barred from crossing the Romanian border unless they produce valid credit cards or funds of up to almost $100 per day. For journeys longer than five days, a total of some $500 will be sufficient. Medical insurance, a return ticket in case they travel by plane or train, or international car insurance for the duration of the trip are also mandatory.

For the Czech Republic, along with Hungary and Poland, the requirements -- already introduced in December -- are similar, with the exception that the necessary sum of money is reduced by half.

Ambassador Tinca believes these measures will further contribute to the decline of Romanian illegal immigration to both the EU and Central European countries. But analysts say that in a country as poor as Romania, where the average monthly income is some $100, nothing short of an economic miracle would stop people from trying to reach wealthier states.