In October 2007 the Institute of European Integration Research (EIF) launched a Europe-wide study investigating the prospects for descendants of immigrants to migrate further within Europe. The study revealed Sweden to be the most immigrant friendly country in Europe. Austria was one of the least.
The project titled "TIES" (The Integration of the European second Generation) questioning over 10,000 people in 28 European countries, was a joint initiative led by the British Council and the Migration Integration Policy Group and funded in part by Austria’s Science Fond FWF, according to the Austrian daily der Standard,
In Austria alone, 2,200 people were surveyed all in major Austrian cities. In Vienna and Linz, 1,000 people of ex-Yugoslavian or Turkish descend were questioned, and another 500 non-immigrants who functioned as the control group.
Results showed that Austria not only hinders immigrants from joining the labour force but also actively impedes the extension of residency permits. Foreigners living in Austria are inadequately protected from discrimination – in fact, in this category it ranked 22nd out of 28 states, largely as a result of the tightening of immigration policies under the new Foreigners’ Law of January 2006.
Austria’s low rankings were also linked with public opinion: According to a related survey, 29.6% of the those questioned supported deportation of legal immigrants from third countries, 45.3% for the deportation of unemployed immigrants and another 56% said that discrimination against foreigners at work has increased, and that not enough had been done to counter act it.
However not all analysts agree with the results. And other scholars in Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and Austria have since come up with a first-ever questionnaire applicable to all 28 EU member states covering social, educational identification issues to test these hypotheses.
"I don’t believe the study places Austria on a realistic rank," says economist Gudrun Biffl of the Austrian Institute of Economic Research. "There were several laws in place during the time of the study that are now being discussed and revised."
Barbara Herzog-Punzenberger of the EIF (European Integration Foundation) is also part of the review team and sees the study itself as having an ameliorative effect.
"The evaluation of the retrieved data will, for the first time, not only close persistent gaps between European nations, but offer internationally comparable Data over multiple generations and their Integration processes within Europe," she told the Austrian National Television, ORF.
A year has passed, and the study has produced a Migrant Integration Policy Index, www.integrationindex.eu combining 140 indicators, measuring and comparing the current situations in all EU states excluding the newest members Bulgaria and Romania.
The details are disturbing. Key findings for Austria are almost without exception unfavorable: eligibility for labour market access, citizenship, the applicability for anti-discrimination law, political participation and conditions for family reunion rank all very low. Critically problematic are a lack of electoral rights and labour market integration measures, both with a 0% score.
The measures to restrict immigration pushed through by the former center-right government have played a major role in the numbers, with a sharp 17% decline in immigrants becoming Austrian citizens in the first nine months of 2006.
Most legal immigrants living in Austria have to wait approximately 10 years until they can apply for citizenship for their children, with a framework of conditions among the harshest in Europe. The only country to score lower was Cypress.
However researchers urge caution in interpreting the results of the study.
"Please be careful when considering the data," Thomas Perchinegg, the supervisor of the study for the Austrian Science Fond. "We have considered only the political systems of governance, not the people being governed. Whether the people that constitute the government are xenophobic or not cannot be extracted from the study, only whether the system employed is."
But how far does the apple fall from the tree? Can you even make the comparison in this case? how close are the Austrian people to their government?
"The Index has painted an entirely false picture of the state of mind of the Austrian population," claims WIFO’s Biffl. In her view, judging the people of Austria by the actions of their government is a terrible mistake.
"If you look at Austria, and I mean look around in Vienna, Tirol, Steiermark. You will come across initiatives like www.ok-line.at, where people are shown how to integrate, and different cultures are introduced, and it works just fine. There is no doubt in my mind that the bureaucratic obstacles – which are numerous – are often sidestepped in order to provide jobs, health care, housing.
"That’s the Austria I see, and it’s neglected entirely by the study," Biffl emphasized. "In Austria, immigrants are integrated by the people, not the government."
Almost half of the 21 million immigrants living in Europe are distributed over five countries that scored exceptionally well on the Migrant Integration Policy Index – the UK, Spain, France, Germany and Italy. As these countries are significantly larger than Austria, it may be fair to say that they have a greater need to assimilate their large foreign populations in a more orderly fashion.
Nevertheless reforms suggested by the current Austrian government may increase support for integration in the coming years, including programs to set up multi-language Kindergartens and free German courses for immigrants. These give observers room for hope.
And if Biffl is right, the people of Austria will keep filling the gaps its government leaves behind.
Immigrants seeking advice and help should contact Caritas Austria or the "Arbeitsgemeinschaft MigrantInnenberatung" (www.migrant.at).