UNHCR's Pro-Refugee Campaign features Czechs

Stories of Czechs and Slovaks fleeing in 1988 hope to promote the acceptance of refugees today

Life or death: both of us or neither of us. That was the only thing I was thinking about,” said Josef Hlavatý while escaping Czechoslovakia with his three-year-old son in 1988 using a homemade hang-glider. His story is just one of three in UNHCR's TV campaign 'We ourselves were refugees' (Sami jsme byli uprchlíci).

Many people in the Czech Republic have been wary when it comes to accepting refugees. This campaign by the UN Refugee Agency is supposed to draw parallels and remind the Czechs of the situation they were in during the Communist occupation. The exact numbers of people who fled from Czechoslovakia to Western countries is unclear, but both Germany and the UK took in refugees.

While it is impossible to compare crises, the UNHCR is trying to send a message and urge Czechs to more open to accepting refugees. On September 16th, Human Rights Minister Jiří Dienstbier, the senior governmental official of the Social Democrats party stated that the Czech Republic would be able to accept between 7,000 and 15,000 refugees. In the 1990s, Czechs aided a much higher number of refugees from the Balkans, Dienstbier pointed out.

The Czech Republic isn't the only country debating the refugee situation: Poland and Hungary especially have many critics. Even Germany, with their open-door policy, have had problems since accepting almost a million refugees as of December 8th according to the Guardian.

The UNHCR campaign includes a TV spot of Hlavatý's story and two other printed stories. One is about someone who escaped by climbing over high voltage wires and the other is about a man who hid in a coffin on a coal-transporting truck. Jaromír 99 and Michal Landa, well-known Czech designers fashioned accessories and shirts to support the campaign.

'No one puts a child in a boat unless the water is safer than the land,' has been quoted frequently during the current crisis. The video features a similar desperation that the Czechs faced less than three decades ago. Today, Czechs have a change to help others who have been forced out of their homes.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was established on December 14th 1950 by the United Nations General Assembly in order to coordinate international aid to refugees worldwide . It has since helped millions of people and this campaign shows it's continued efforts.

It is important to understand the stories that the campaign features. In 1984, Glasnost and Perestroika, two of Mikhail Gorbachev's policies caused the standards of living to drop and the new restrictions led people to protest the government in 1988. The police began violently dispersing the protests and more and more people began fearing for their well-being.

This wasn't the only time that people fled the country during the Communist occupation that began in 1948. Prague Spring was one of the hardest moment in the history of Ceskoslovakia: 500,000 Warsaw Pact troops invaded in 1968 and over 100 Czechs and Slovaks were killed while 500 were wounded.

Refugees play an important part in the history of Europe. Between the two World Wars and dozens of other conflicts, there have been numerous refugee exchanges between countries. It was one of the motivations for opening up borders between EU countries with the signing of the Schengen Agreement on July 14th 1985. The current refugee crisis has challenged the Schengen laws and the Dublin regulations, causing temporary border checks in several countries. Campaigns such as 'We ourselves were refugees' are here to remind the public about the hardships of people in crisis and the importance of lenient immigration laws.


UN Refugee Agency www.unhcr.org

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