This Czech City Is Modeling How Communities Can Support Migrant Populations

Panoramic view of Brno, Czech Republic

The city of Brno’s growing migrant population had been mostly served by NGOs. It wasn’t enough. So the city brought the work in-house.

Alexandru Ceban comes to the bus station near the center of the city of Brno, Czech Republic, at least once a month. A tall Moldovan man, he waits for the buses coming from either his homeland or Ukraine.

He observes people who get off the buses and guesses whom to approach, then watches as a man with a large checkered bag settles down on a bench.

Only then does he step forward and ask in Romanian whether the new arrival is from Moldova. The man answers in Russian, a language that Ceban also speaks.

With a smile on his face, Ceban hands him his business card and briefly explains that he works for the municipality, and the man can turn to him if he needs anything.

“Most people do not understand I am offering services for free. They think I am trying to trick them,” explains Ceban, who is an intercultural worker of the Brno city government, and also an Orthodox priest. “If one or two take my business card, I call it a success.”

Most immigrants he approaches come to Czechia for three months at a time. They work on construction sites, in fruit warehouses, or in meat-processing facilities. They return repeatedly, always on a tourist visa because applying for a work visa is a drawn-out process.

Later on, these migrant workers, who get exploited by unpaid work and other scams, contact Ceban for help. But apart from such complicated cases, the intercultural worker is mainly concerned with helping his compatriots understand how things work in the Czech Republic.

“For people who come here for short-time stays, integration means understanding the system and cultural differences,” Ceban says. “For example, that the tram is not to be used without a ticket, or that you have to pay for waste pickup.”

Ceban is not the only intercultural worker at the city. The local Department of Social Inclusion approaches various migrant communities that are most populous or whose integration is the most difficult, including those from Vietnam, the Middle East, Moldova, Romania, Russia, and Ukraine.

The majority of the intercultural workers are migrants themselves and state that their personal experience helps them understand the situation of their clients.

According to the Czech Statistical Office, the number of foreigners in the South Moravian Region (including Brno, its capital) is growing every year.

In 2017, when intercultural work became a city government program, there were 46,574 immigrants working in the region.

At the end of 2020, the number had already reached nearly 59,000.

The Czech economy relies heavily on this migrant workforce. In 2021, foreigners constituted 17% of the overall workforce, according to the Czech news website Aktualne.cz.

Since the industrial sector has a difficult time finding qualified workers, migrants are welcomed to take on these jobs.

Apart from industry, migrants also come for seasonal work, such as fruit picking, or work at the large number of convenience stores across Brno that are run by Vietnamese immigrants.

In 2017, the whole weight of the task of assisting migrant workers was placed on nongovernmental organizations.

“I knew intercultural workers working for NGOs who would burn out very fast, and one reason for it was that they did not have wished impact,” says Lenka Šafránková Pavlíčková, the coordinator of intercultural work for the city of Brno.

By contrast, she adds, “Municipality intercultural workers stay within the structures where the policies and solutions are being created.”

Šafránková Pavlíčková introduced intercultural work in Brno in 2017. A European Commission report on the events of that year stated that the Czech population tends to perceive immigration as a problem, a sentiment influenced by the European refugee crisis in 2015. This often creates challenges in getting political support for integration activities.

Thanks to an open environment at the city, where the socially oriented political movement Žít Brno (“Live Brno” in English) was present, the integration program got off to a successful start.

Šafránková Pavlíčková wrote a project proposal and received funding from the European Commission.

Brno’s intercultural workers assist individuals but also work with institutions so that these are prepared to attend to foreigners.

The underlying objective is for schools, government offices, medical facilities, and employers to be able to interact with foreigners in the same way as they do with the domestic population.

“We are here to make the gap between the two cultures smaller,” says Karin Atassi, Brno’s intercultural worker for the city’s Arab community.

Each intercultural worker goes to the field regularly to learn about challenges their communities are facing. Hoang Van Tien spends most of his time in places where Vietnamese do business: in shops and stalls within the well-known Vietnamese market on Olomoucká Street.

“If we want to help the Vietnamese, we need to interact with them face to face,” Tien says.

Each migrant community gathers in different places. For example, the Ukrainian intercultural worker Kateryna Hertlová checks Facebook groups where migrants interact, and thus her “field” is sometimes virtual.

“One of the goals of the fieldwork is to identify clients’ needs so that we can create integration tools,” explains Julie Lien Vrbková, the chief methodologist for the Vietnamese section of the city’s Department of Social Inclusion. “Another one is to inform them about what we do.”

The Vietnamese section, for example, publishes explanatory videos on YouTube. “By creating a video about how to find a kindergarten for your child, we make it easier for Vietnamese parents as well as for kindergartens,” Lien Vrbková explains.

They also organize workshops for teachers at schools. As a result, one of the schools hired their own intercultural worker and no longer needs support from the local government.

Šafránková Pavlíčková stresses that it is crucial to have a proper methodology in place to create long-term solutions.

“It is not enough for an intercultural worker to arrive at the institution that needs assistance. It is important that our methodologist subsequently contacts that institution to set up a proper workflow with them,” she says.

In Brno, the intercultural work team, together with the Centre for Foreigners of the South Moravian Region, is currently working on a complex methodology that could serve as an inspiration for other cities in the region and beyond. Šafránková Pavlíčková says it is difficult to find methodologists with integration experience in the region.

In the Czech Republic, intercultural work only started to become popular at the beginning of the 21st century.

In Western Europe, in countries such as Portugal, Spain, and Germany, intercultural workers, sometimes called “sociocultural mediators,” have been present since the 1990s.

Cities such as Lisbon, Portugal, and Vienna, Austria, became an inspiration to Brno’s intercultural workers.

The Portuguese capital set its local migration policy at the beginning of the 1990s. The Municipal Council of Immigrant Communities and Ethnic Minorities was created, which was key to building cross-sectorial cooperation, and now, several mechanisms for cooperation between different stakeholders are in place.

Intercultural mediators, as they are called in Portugal, work through National Immigrant Support Centres and Local Immigrant Support Centres established by the public High Commission for Migration as a response to an influx of immigrants in 2001.

The centers work like one-stop shops where migrants receive a wide variety of necessary information in one place. They also connect various institutions, such as the Foreign Police or the Ministry of Education, in one place, allowing for easier administration of immigrant issues.

The main goal of intercultural mediators in Lisbon is to be a bridge between migrants and institutions and to eliminate misunderstandings on both sides.

In Portugal, intercultural mediators at the support centers are hired by migrant associations or non-governmental organizations, with the idea that they are more closely in touch with their migrant communities.

“Our staff is an ‘intercultural workforce.’ Many of us were born in different countries and speak several languages,” says Ursula Struppe, the director of the Vienna Municipal Department of Integration and Diversity.

The Austrian capital has been running its own integration program, StartWien, since 2008. At the beginning of the program, StartWien would contact third-country nationals after receiving their residence permits and offer them guidance about settling in.

Later on, the program started working with people from across the European Union, and in 2015, it began assisting asylum seekers who had not yet obtained a residence permit.

The city government in Vienna has a complex approach to intercultural competencies. “The city considers it being necessary for all employees, not just some specialists,” Struppe says. “Human rights, anti-discrimination, equal treatment, and other soft ‘intercultural competencies’ are part of all trainings for new staff members, particularly everybody who is in direct contact with the population.”

In Vienna, this approach is a result of what Struppe calls “very engaged members of the city government in charge of integration” since the mid-1990s.

Struppe and Šafránková Pavlíčková both state that having political will is the key to implementing a successful integration initiative.

“In Vienna, there is this political will. This is not only due to ‘ethical’ standards. It is also a matter of good management and pragmatic approaches: to minimize risks and maximize chances, as a management rule puts it; in our case, to minimize risks and maximize chances of immigration,” Struppe says.

While funding for integration programs is stable in the Austrian capital, the city of Brno still struggles with the program’s finances.

The work is supported by EU funds and the Czech Ministry of the Interior. The Department of Social Inclusion has to apply for grants, which makes the work less effective and more stressful.

“Non-systemic funding of intercultural work has a negative impact on stability of this profession that is not sustainable without a project-based support,” says Eva Valentová, a program coordinator of the nonprofit Association for Integration and Migration, which researched cities with inclusive strategies.

“Ideally, we would receive funding from the city and the state, but not grant-based,” Šafránková Pavlíčková says.

Her team is still ambitious, for example, in helping migrants who are working without a visa.

Czech police detained more than 7,000 migrants in 2020, which is a 25% increase from 2019.

Intercultural workers are searching for solutions to reduce the number of migrants arriving without work visas by informing them about the legal consequences they might encounter.

“Many people, for example, spend years working in the Czech Republic, but since they do not work legally or work based on various types of temporary agreements, they are not eligible for old-age pension,” says Hertlová.

She hopes to work toward changing the law to include migrants in the national pension program, but she admits that it is not something that intercultural workers can do alone.

“For such changes in laws, cooperation between various stakeholders will be necessary,” Hertlová says.

That cooperation is something the city’s intercultural workers are striving to make more effective.

This story is part of the SoJo Exchange from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems. It was originally published by YES! Magazine.

Header image: Panoramic view on Brno, Czech Republic / Photo courtesy of Marco Verch, (CC BY 2.0).

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