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Czech Republic: Immigration Plan Hopes To Attract Kazakhs, Croats, Bulgarians

Czech authorities this week released results of this year's census showing a declining and aging population. The news comes as the Czech Republic is putting the final touches on a pilot program to attract foreign experts in a bid to soften the impact of demographic developments. The program will initially focus on bringing in young professionals and their families from three countries: Bulgaria, Croatia, and Kazakhstan.

Prague, 19 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The Czech Republic plans to attract 600 experts and their families from Kazakhstan, Bulgaria, and Croatia next year in the first year of a five-year pilot project that eventually is intended to bring thousands of foreign experts and their families every year to settle in the Czech Republic.

The program, drawn up by the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, is modeled after similar ones in Germany and the Canadian province of Quebec. It aims to counteract the Czech Republic's shrinking, aging population and a brain drain.

Among 30 European countries, the Czech Republic currently takes fourth to last place after Latvia, Lithuania, and Bulgaria in live births per 1,000 inhabitants.

The Ministry of Labor estimates that by 2030 the Czech Republic will have a shortfall of half a million wage-earners, and with the number of Czechs who die in a given year now exceeding the number of Czechs being born, attracting qualified migrants only makes sense.

The program will be conducted in cooperation with the UN's International Organization for Migration. The IOM has offices in the three countries and will handle the paperwork.

The program has the full backing of new Czech Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla, who headed the Ministry of Labor until 16 July, when his new cabinet took office.

Spidla said late last year that Ukrainians were the most suitable candidates for the program. However, the final version of the project specifies that in the first year of operation -- 2003 -- only citizens of Bulgaria, Croatia, and Kazakhstan will be eligible to apply. A total of 600 experts would be admitted along with family members initially.

According to the project text, half of the experts to be admitted to the program should already be resident and working in the Czech Republic. As of last March, there were only 75 Kazakh citizens, slightly over 100 Croats, and just under 2,000 Bulgarians with Czech work permits.

The Ministry of Labor's Michal Meduna, co-author of the pilot project, says: "The whole developed world is slowly moving toward a system of managed migration [though migration will always be dominated by unregulated flows]. Another reason is that the Czech population is aging and the demographic impact of this aging will be quite serious on the development of social welfare and the labor market."

Meduna, who heads the Czech Ministry of Labor's department for migration, says the pilot will help authorities gather information so the program can be expanded to the rest of the world in five years.

He says one of the reasons Kazakhstan is among the three pilot countries is to see whether anyone at all from such a country would migrate to the Czech Republic. The Czech Republic has sizable communities of Vietnamese and Chinese but relatively few residents from other parts of Asia.

The director of the consular department of the Czech Foreign Ministry, Ivan Zalesky, worked on the pilot program. He says one of the reasons Kazakhstan was chosen was to attract ethnic Czechs who emigrated to what is now Kazakhstan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This would appear to be an official attempt to repatriate Czechs much as Prague did with hundreds of Volhynian Czechs from Ukraine a decade ago.

Zalesky declined to discuss the other reasons for selecting Kazakhstan, Bulgaria, and Croatia, citing the sensitivity of the issue. He says 15 countries were initially considered. He did not say why Ukraine, which has an estimated 60,000 of its citizens working in the Czech Republic, was excluded.

Meduna says Ukrainians will eventually be included in the program, but that the government did not want to be swamped by Ukrainian applications right at the start. "The first year certainly will not be aimed at our fulfilling the criteria which we set for easing the demographic development but only to get the system started. Precisely because we expect the greatest numbers to come from Ukraine, we don't want to be overwhelmed in the first year with so many applications from Ukraine that could threaten the survival of the whole project."

He describes the pilot project as a component of Czech migration policy in conjunction with the existing model of granting short-term work permits to foreigners. "In a certain way, this policy, both through the active support of the entry of qualified foreign experts as well as the inflow of less-qualified foreign workers, will contribute to covering the projected labor shortage. Unfortunately, we are not able to estimate the proportion. Of course it would be better if there were more of those coming who are qualified and fewer less-qualified ones."

The project only vaguely refers to applicants "with knowledge and experiences in the modern world" but makes no mention of those professions being sought.

The admissions procedure to the program will be based on a points system similar to one used in Quebec. Young, highly educated people who are married with children and who are already working in the Czech Republic will receive the most points. Speakers of Czech or Slovak will be preferred, though knowledge of English, French, or German would also win the applicant points.

Ideal applicants will be between the ages of 23 and 35, though points would be awarded to applicants up to 43 years of age. The purpose is to find applicants who are most likely to succeed in integrating into Czech society.

Two years ago, Germany launched a project to attract thousands of computer experts from non-EU countries -- offering jobs and residency permits. So far, Germany has only admitted 12,000 of a projected 20,000 computer specialists needed to fill a shortage in the German economy.

Some 10,000 were admitted during the first 14 months of the program through last September. However, since then, foreign interest has declined. The largest number of foreigners in the German program have come from India, making up over 22 percent of the total, followed by experts from the CIS and Romania. Czechs and Slovaks combined make up 7 percent of the German total and thus are contributing to the shortage at home.

A new program is now getting under way in the eastern German state of Saxony to attract East European doctors, especially from the Czech Republic and Poland. They would replace the many doctors from Saxony who have migrated to western Germany in search of better-paying jobs.

The Czech Medical Chamber says that while this would be a very lucrative move for Czech doctors it would create a shortage of doctors in the Czech Republic, eventually resulting in an inflow of doctors from Slovakia and Ukraine. That trend is already well under way among nurses -- with many Czech nurses having moved abroad and being replaced by Ukrainian nurses, who are happy to earn a salary that, while low by EU standards, is still higher than back home.