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Crisis puts migrant workers in a bind

Some Vietnamese paid so much to get to Prague, it's impossible for them to return home.

A young girl licks her chocolate ice cream at one of Prague's largest open-air markets, where many booths are run by Vietnamese immigrants, April 21, 2009. (Bruce I. Konviser/GlobalPost)

PRAGUE — When the global demand for consumer goods tumbled, production and assembly line jobs here evaporated. The consequences for some migrants from the developing world have been catastrophic.

With jobs scarce, the Czech government decided to try to send some of the migrants home. But for some, the way they came here makes it financially impossible to take advantage of the offer.

In one of this city's largest outdoor markets, merchants, many of them from Vietnam, hawk clothes, furniture, food and an assortment of gadgets.

They all speak some Czech, but ask the vendors about the government program to return unemployed foreigners to their homelands and most of them suddenly forget the local language. They said a vendor named Milot was the person to talk to in their community. But without looking up from the case of rings or the collection of handbags he was adjusting, Milot only huffed, “I'm not interested.”

More than 1,000 foreigners have signed up to take the government's offer — 500 euros (about $650) and a free plane ticket home, according to Bela Hejna, who manages the Interior Ministry's Project of Voluntary Returns. The vast majority — more than 800 — are Mongolians. About 200 Uzbeks and 100 Vietnamese also have signed up.

The Czech Republic has seen its foreign worker population explode in recent years, more than doubling since 2001. Last year there were nearly 440,000 foreigners in this country of 10.4 million, according to the Czech Statistical Office, a state agency.

The repatriation project was set to run for eight months in the hopes of sending 2,000 unemployed foreigners home. With more than half of the slots already gone, the ministry wants to offer another 3,000 airplane seats, and is seeking another 90 million Czech koruna ($4.5 million) in funding, on top of the 60 million koruna allocated to start of the program.

“I think we can call it a successful project,” Hejna said. “We didn't suppose that within two months we would have fewer than 800 spaces left."

But back at the outdoor market, it's clear that many more foreigners have no use for the government program. Speaking amid a cacophony of synthesized bird songs and other carnival-like sounds, one vendor, who gave his name as Tom, explains that taking the government's offer to return home now would mean losing any chance of repaying their debts and bettering their economic situation.