Immigration Taboo

In the recent Austrian election, it was a case of ‘the less said, the better’

Opinion | Dardis McNamee | October 2008

In this year’s Austrian election, it was what they were not talking about that mattered, the hush-hush issue that will decide the country’s future: Immigration.

Not those troublesome asylum seekers, whose precarious situation is unraveling as spiraling living costs throw more of them onto the street – and onto the doorstep of the long-suffering Ute Bock, the Florence Nightingale of the disenfranchised who puts politicians to shame. Stretched beyond the limit, she threatened to close, and suddenly people started throwing money at her.

But that’s the thing with asylum seekers: They cost money – they’re not allowed to work until their status is sorted – years in some cases. In the mean time they live on a paltry stipend from the government that insures that they are poor, bored and exploding with frustration. The Greens, supported by the SPÖ, sensibly suggested that any legal resident should be entitled to work.

The sillier problem is the systematic rejection of the highly-qualified. Since the new Foreigner’s Law took effect in 2006 – requiring a minimum "key-employee" salary of 2,100 EUR – Austria has been beating back the Best the Brightest with the stick of irrational fear. In 2006, the number of new residency permits issued declined 75%.

It’s been like watching a bad movie: You’re smart? You’re well-trained? You speak German? Forget it. We don’t want you. Unless you’re Anna Netrebko.

The irony of this misguided policy is profound. Since 2000, Europe’s population "momentum" has turned negative, according to Wolfgang Lutz of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. And at 1.6 children per female, Austria has among the lowest birthrates in Europe, under-funded pensions and skill shortages.

A major cause is misplaced nationalism.

The good news is that immigrants are coming anyway: Austria has 15% foreign residents over all, and a full 25% in Vienna, according to Alexander Janda of the Austrian Integration Fund. Adding the 23.6% foreign-born citizens, it means that nearly half of the Viennese population (including this writer) are foreign born.

So who exactly are we planning to keep out?

"Some politicians present immigration as if it were a choice, when in fact immigration is simply a fact of life," Janda says.

And anyway, nearly 30% of these strangers are actually EU-citizens – with German new-residency permits leading the list – and another 7% or so non-EU Europeans like Croats or (God help us!) the Swiss.

So this is everybody’s issue. And nobody’s talking about it. For the Greens, it’s progressive; for the Social Democrats; it’s fairness. Even for the far right FPÖ and BZÖ, these "Top Talents" are tax payers, who weigh lightly on social services.

Most of all, this is ÖVP material, as Vienna Chamber of Commerce President Brigitte Jank is happy to tell you.

"Migrants bring the needed talents and skills, the intercultural competences and knowledge of languages," Jank said Sept. 9, "that are the deciding factors in an era of Globalization."

But maybe that’s just the problem; this issue of skilled immigrants is just not partisan enough. And after all, this is politics.

Other articles from this issue

  • Is Grinzing Doomed?

    Locals feel that the village’s character is being destroyed by developers, for whom tradition and charm are for sale
    News | Franziska Nebehay
  • World Press Photo: A Year in Frames

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    On The Town | Kata Cserveny
  • UBahn Talk Tyranny

    With the ubiquitous presence of handys, some cities protest; the Viennese don’t mind at all
    News | Nadine Weber
  • Election Diary

    The Austrian campaign: Propaganda, confusion and the land of Brigadoon
    News | Dardis McNamee
  • All articles from this issue

    the vienna review October 2008