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Rigid and Inefficient, Austria’s Policy Toward Assylum Seekers Has Become an Embarrassment

News | Alexandra Ruths | November 2007

Austria was riveted this fall by the case of Arigona Zogaj, a teenager from Kosovo who went into hiding rather than be deported. It has sparked a heightened debate in Austria about the status of integrated foreigners that has been building since the enactment of a new law in January 2006 made the situation more precarious for many.

The incident has triggered questions about Austria’s attitude towards immigration and asylum, and has drawn attention to the long waiting times – sometimes a decade or more – for applications to be processed. Interior Ministry statistics show that 33,560 applications and appeals were outstanding at the end of September of this year.

Austria’s Interior Minister Günther Platter has acknowledged the problem and announced the establishment of a special tribunal to deal with asylum applications and some 200 new positions on the processing staff. He has also proposed a statutory limit of one year for applications processing.

While action is clearly needed, many, such as Alexander Janda of the Austrian Integration Fund, are critical of these initiatives, as are the members of the Austrian Supreme Court.

"We will not let ourselves be put under pressure in terms of the length of time necessary for decision making," said Supreme Court spokesman Christian Neuwirth.

The fiercest criticism has been reserved for the new Foreigners Law, which received backing from both the ÖVP and the SPÖ when it was passed in 2005 – particularly from the Greens, the only leading party that voted against it.

"The present policy on foreigners is inhumane and intolerable," said Green party chief Alexander van der Bellen.

Among its effects, the law has dramatically reduced the number of applications for asylum and new residency permits, down  72% in 2006 following the passage of the new law, according to Austrian Ministry statistics. However, the law has also lowered the number of deportations, only 1,500 in the first six months of 2007, compared with 4,000 the year before – which however may only reflect processing delays. Critics, including Vienna Mayor Michael Häupl, condemn the current policy, allowing people to be deported who have been living in Austria for years.

"The law doesn’t require inhumanity," the mayor protested, in an Oct. 15 interview in Der Standard. "On the basis of current law this case [of the Zogaj family] could have been decided very differently, and the family offered residency on humanitarian terms."

The irony is that, whatever the politics, Austria has traditionally been a country of migration, according to a 2004 study by the International Organisation of Migration (IOM) on the influence of migration on Austria. Even though Austria should be considered a migration country, due to its historical background, its politics seem to suggest just the opposite.

"The official line continuous to be that Austria is not a traditional country of immigration and recent policies reflect that ambivalence," the study said.

Alexander Janda of the Austrian Integration Fund agrees.

"Some politicians present immigration as if it were a choice when in fact it is simply a fact of life." The numbers prove it, he says. "With a population of 10% of foreign residents, Austria has the second highest rate in Europe, after Luxembourg, and with its 15% of foreign born citizens, Austria even outnumbers the US at 12%."

At the conference Migration in the 21st Century, held at the Amerika Haus in September, Janda challenged the so-called "migration mythology" prevalent in Austrian politics, denying the large and important role that immigrants play in Austrian society.

"It should not come as a surprise anymore that Austria is in fact a country of immigration," Janda concluded.

The persistence of the perception problem makes the issue harder to address, according to migration expert Rainer Bauböck, in an October interview in the Austrian daily Der Standard. 

"Immigrants see themselves as unwelcome and the native population perceives immigrants as not able to integrate," Bauböck said. "In Europe people wrongly perceive immigration as something uncontrollable that happens against the will of the receiving countries. This puts pressure on those countries to be more selective in the reception process and when granting citizenship."

An increasingly strict stance towards immigration is visible across Europe.

In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy was elected for his policy of tightening illegal immigration, with deportations a crucial point in his presidential campaign. He vowed to deport 25,000 illegal immigrants by the end of 2007, leading to stories about French families hiding the children of threatened families – the children "ans papiers, without papers.  Unlike in Austria, under French law parents can not be deported and forced to leave their children behind.

Belgium has also made headlines on the issue of deportation, with the case of an 11-year-old Ecuadorian girl and her mother caused a public outcry this summer. The family had lived in Belgium for over four years, with the girl attending a local primary school. After public protest, the government granted them right of residence.

The Belgian business community also has a unified effort, lobbying in favour of making it easier to admit skilled foreign workers, according to an Oct.  9 article in the International Herald Tribune. 

In Finland, a new law passed this summer determined that any category of legal residence rights automatically entails a work permit.

"This measure is part of an all-encompassing reform in the area of migration," Finnish officials told Der Standard, "and should help to meet the demand for workers on the Finnish market."

In Austria, however, down-playing the potential economic contributions made by immigrants supports another "migration myth."

"Restrictive policies are argued for with the necessity to preserve Austria’s economic self-interest and the protection of Austrians," Der Standard commentary editor, Helmut Spudich, wrote in October, calling for discussion not only from a humanitarian but from an economic point of view.  In an industrial and service-oriented society, he wrote, wealth is determined by the number of working people and their economic performance – performances that economic refugees with the will to improve their economic situation bring with them, contributing to the country’s economic development.

The bottom line: Embracing immigrants as workers and consumers shows a new way to "profitable" immigration, and while excessive immigration may add to the burden on the country’s social care system, the IOM study showed that "migrants on average pay in as much as they take out of Austria’s social budget."

However, important as they are, current economic arguments may not be as important as the impact of the restrictive policies on Austria’s future demographics.

"I disagree with Austria’s present policy on foreigners; we should encourage immigration instead of hindering it," said former Vice Chancellor Erhard Busek, in a recent debat on the status of  the approximately 35.000 pending asylum applications. "Our country is in need of young people otherwise we are faced with the danger of an over aged society."

In the end, the climate of non-acceptance and fear may have its roots in the prevalent information gap, concluded the Integration Funds’ Janda.

"Austrian society has not been informed, because politicians do not dare to address the issue."

At the end of October, the future of the Zogaj family was still uncertain, although for the moment the storm of debates has calmed.

After a series of public protests and the efforts of the mayor of Arigona’s home town of Frankenburg, Arigona and her mother have received permission from Interior Minister Platter to stay, while her father and brothers have had to remain in Kosovo, where they were deported in early September.

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