The Czech/Slovak Community
by Eva Marha
Since the establishment of the former Czechoslovak Republic in 1918, there have been four major waves of refugee movements out of the country. The first wave of emigration was driven by economic need, for it was practically impossible for people to find employment during the first few years after the republic was established. During the early 1920s, thousands of people emigrated. Most of them were Slovaks and Carpatho-Rusyns who sought resettlement in the United States. The emigration from Czechoslovakia to Canada in these years was considerably smaller when compared to emigration in the next 40 years. In 1922, some 110 people of Czech and Slovak origin emigrated to Canada. In 1923, there were approximately 2,000 to 2,500 emigrants and in 1924 2,800 to 3,100 emigrants.
The next major wave occurred between 1938 and 1939. Czechoslovakia was one of the first targets of Nazi Germany, and the country's Sudeten-German minority provided a good excuse for Hitler's expansion. After Czechoslovakia lost its border regions in September 1938 as a result of the Munich Agreement, the country became completely vulnerable to Hitler's further aggression. In March 1939, Hitler annexed what remained of Bohemia and Moravia, and thousands fled the country for political reasons. Most of them were of Jewish origin or communist background.
In 1945, a smaller wave of about 10,000 refugees from Czechoslovakia sought asylum abroad. These people were mostly of Slovak origin, and included former politicians, civil servants, members of the Hlinka Guard, and army officers from the Slovak state, which was allied with Nazi Germany during the war.
A mass exodus started again after the communist coup on 25 February 1948. People fled both harsh economic conditions and political repression, and within a few years some 50,000 Czechoslovakians left the country. Of these, 5,916 emigrated to Canada between April 1947 and December 1951. This new wave of immigrants included a large number of highly qualified people who soon began to participate in Canada's economy and culture.
After the establishment of the communist government in 1948, it soon became practically impossible to flee to the West. In October 1949, four Czechs were sentenced to death for helping people escape, and many others were sentenced to penal servitude for life. This, however, did not discourage further attempts to flee. Between 1948 and 1949, at least 50 people a day crossed the borders. By 1952, it was reduced to about 100 crossings a month, and during the worst Stalinist times, escape became almost impossible.
The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 was a reprisal for the liberalizing reforms of the Dubcek government and gave rise to a larger refugee movement. At the time of the invasion, some 80,000 Czechoslovakian citizens were already abroad. After the invasion, many took advantage of the still-open borders to go abroad as ordinary travellers in order to seek asylum. Many of them chose to wait and see the results. Although in September 1968 the Czechoslovakian government urged its citizens to return, claiming that recent political events posed no threat to them, the number of registrations for emigration abroad increased in the spring of 1969.
On 27 May 1969, the Czechoslovakian government announced an amnesty for all citizens who had left the country illegally after 9 May or whose permits to stay outside the country had expired, if they would return or regularize their status at Czechoslovakian embassies before 15 September 1969. Not many returned. By then, however, there were already some 42,000 Czechoslovakian refugees abroad.
For most, Canada was not a country of first asylum but served as a resettlement country where refugees could establish new and permanent roots if they chose to do so. Initially, Canada did not take any immediate measures in helping the Czechoslovakian refugees, but by 6 September 1968, Canada was ready to accept them with open arms. According to The Globe and Mail (17 September 1968), the Canadian government saw this as an unprecedented opportunity to acquire the most skilled immigrants, including medical doctors, dentists, designers, and electronic and chemical technicians. The Department of Manpower and Immigration set up a special team in Vienna, where most of the refugees were recruited. In all, 11,943 refugees were admitted to Canada between 1968 and 1969.
This group of refugees differed from the 1938 and 1948 groups. it was composed largely of much younger and well-educated people. Many of the refugees also spoke English, French, and German, and they had valid passports and often some financial means. They were mostly students, teachers, scientists, journalists, artists, doctors, and people with other technical and professional skills. Of the 2,643 heads of households who were bound for the Canadian labour market, close to 70 per cent were between the ages of 15 and 44. Nineteen per cent of all the Czechoslovakian refugees who were admitted to Canada in 1968 and 1969 had acquired more than 12 years of formal education, while 33 per cent of the new arrivals were in highly skilled and professional occupational categories. These and other characteristics enabled the Czechoslovakians to integrate quickly into the Canadian economy and society. The total cost to Canadian taxpayers was approximately $11-million, or a little less than $1,000 per refugee. Given their productivity in the Canadian economy, there is little doubt that the return has far outweighed the modest initial investment.
The events of 1968 have in no way stopped the departure of refugees from Czechoslovakia. Although after 1969 it became difficult to leave the country, some 50,000 refugees nevertheless found their way out between 1969 and 1973. It has been estimated that after 1948, about 5,000 refugees a year have managed to flee the country. Canada has continued accepting Czechoslovakian refugees up to the early 1990s. For example, in 1985, 720 Czechoslovakian refugees were admitted to Canada from abroad, and in 1986 there were 648 cases. The number of refugees from Czechoslovakia accepted in 1986 is only 3.24 per cent of the total Canadian refugee intake. Between 1978 and 1989, there has also been a small number of Czechoslovakian refugee claimants in Canada. During these 12 years, 282 Czechoslovakians claimed refugee status in Canada. Following the Velvet Revolution of November 1989, the communist government was replaced by a democratic one. Since then, the country has also undergone a voluntary "divorce," to emerge as the Czech Republic and the Republic of Slovakia.