Half of those arriving in six countries were Syrians fleeing war and the overwhelming majority landed in Greece.
The Czech president’s comments describing the refugee crisis as an “organised invasion” on Europe and his call on Syrians and Iraqis to stay at home and fight the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group are harmful from both political and humanitarian perspectives, analysts told Al Jazeera.
Milos Zeman’s Christmas message, released on Saturday, called on young men in particular to fight ISIL, the group which has claimed responsibility for several deadly, indiscriminate attacks across the world in 2015.
“I am profoundly convinced that we are facing an organised invasion and not a spontaneous movement of refugees,” Zeman said, adding that compassion should be reserved only for the elderly, sick and children.
“A large majority of the illegal migrants are young men in good health, and single. I wonder why these men are not taking up arms to go fight for the freedom of their countries against the Islamic State,” said the 71-year-old, who last month attended an anti-Islam march in Prague alongside far-right politicians and a paramilitary unit.
The number of refugees and migrants arriving by land and sea in the European Union reached a record during 2015, passing 1 million people, while a further 3,600 died or went missing, the UN’s refugee agency and the International Organisation for Migration said on Tuesday.
Half of those arriving were Syrians fleeing the war, another 20 percent were Afghans, and 7 percent were Iraqis, the two agencies said in a joint statement.
“What’s happening in Syria now is a concentration of conflict. There are multiple actors and there is very little you can do when your area is being shelled,” Mark Micallef, executive editor of Migrant Report, told Al Jazeera.
Migrant Report is a non-profit project designed to measure, investigate and document the effect of human movement.
“This is an unhelpful portrayal of these people as cowards. It is a complete misrepresentation of these people and their families who make courageous decisions every step of the way to safeguard their lives. I have come across this courage,” said Micallef, adding that the same narrative is employed by ISIL.
“This is something [ISIL] preaches as well; they are quite angered about fleeing refugees. For them, masses of people fleeing ISIL territory is a sign of failure.”
Looking ahead to 2016, “from a humanitarian perspective, I’m not very hopeful,” said Micallef. “In Syria, the options are all very open, it’s now become an extremely complex conflict scenario. Intense shelling will push more people outside Syria, and at the same time borders are being sealed in neighbouring Jordan and Turkey.”
The Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, who has before criticised the head of state’s comments, said Zeman’s Christmas message was based “on prejudices and his habitual simplification of things”.
Few refugees choose to stay in the Czech Republic, preferring instead countries such as Holland, Sweden and Germany.
Zeman’s comments “are unhelpful in the sense that they go against the values the Czech Republic, as a member of the EU, is supposed to uphold”, Bart Hesseling, a researcher at Abu Dhabi-based The Delma Institute, told Al Jazeera.
The leader’s anti-refugee rhetoric, “whether it’s just signalling to his constituency or an attempt to dissuade refugees from going to the Czech Republic”, harms the country’s political reputation, and pushes “against Merkel’s more welcoming policy that she is trying to get the EU’s support on”, Hesseling added.
The Czech Republic has a population of 10.5 million. A poll earlier this year showed that some 70 percent of Czechs oppose the arrival of refugees from Syria and North Africa.
Follow Anealla Safdar on Twitter: @anealla