Integration: A Paradigm Shift

Wolf-Maier opens the ÖIF Welcome Desks

Opinion | Dardis McNamee | September 2013

A hundred years ago, in 1913, there were 2.1 million people in Vienna, larger than the 1.7 who live here today – as mix of Serbs an, Poles, Turks, Hungarians, and of course, Germans, who represent the largest immigrant group in Vienna and Austria today.

Austria, which stretched from Lake Constance to the Black Sea and embraced a dozen nations and languages.

Over the next 32 years, two world wars and the dismantling of the Empire, like an earthquake, rent the ground out from under the city, leaving a population dispirited and with no sense of a future.

Many from the far reaches of the empire returned to their "new" countries of origin.

By 1951, the city’s population without the Jews had fallen to 1.6 million, and by 1981, often for economic reasons, to 1.53 million. With it all, Habsburg idea of a "many peopled land" was to a large extent lost.

Just three decades later, Vienna is once again a thriving multi-ethnic city. Today there are 590,00 foreign-born residents of Vienna, a full 34% of the population and double the number 20 years ago. And while largest group are the Germans, 2/3 come from countries outside the EU, principally from the former Yugoslavia and Turkey.

Thus, the integration of new immigrants is one of the biggest challenges that Austria, and more specifically Vienna, faces today. With a national birth rate of 1.44 per woman – well below a replacement level of 2.0 – immigration is a central factor in preventing national decline.

As of Jan. 1, 2006, a New Foreigners Law, passed under the conservative coalition of the Austrian Peoples’ Party (ÖVP) and the Freedom Party (FPÖ) made getting the right to live and work in Austria much harder, establishing strict language and income requirements, and severe limits on accompanying family members. The new rules were so complicated and poorly understood by the authorities themselves, that few made it through the system. That first year, the number of new residency permits nationwide fell by two-thirds, and the then Interior Minister Maria Fekter became embroiled in a seemingly endless series of high-profile, and at times ugly, deportations, that made her the lightening rod for frustration among internationals.

Since then, the law has been modified and some of the unintended consequences – like the barriers for foreign researchers – have been eased.  However, many problems remain, that often discourage the highest qualified from slugging their way through the system.

Now for the good news! Over the summer, the Österreichischer Integrationsfonds (ÖIF - Austrian Integration Fund) has opened a network of Welcome Desks in Vienna, Graz, Linz and Salzburg, with one further one planned for Innsbruck, that will serve as a first point of entry and information centre for new arrivals. A division of the Interior Ministry under Integration State Secretary Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP), the ÖIF is expanding on its subsidized German courses, job training and mentoring programmes to offer ombudsman services in Austria’s major cities. Similar to the social democratic City of Vienna’s Expat Center, the Welcome Desks hope to smooth the system’s daunting obstacles.

What is radically different here is the attitude: an immigrant-friendly one-stop shop for dealing with Austrian bureaucracy. Suddenly, welcoming immigrants is everybody’s issue.

"What we’re doing here is really a paradigm shift," ÖIF Director Franz Wolf-Maier told me in late August. "Here’s a first point of contact, a friendly welcoming place where new arrivals can find out what possibilities there are for support, about language courses, schools for their children, recognition of qualifications – all the questions people have when they first arrive."

For anyone who has struggled through the Austrian immigration machinery as a foreigner, this sounds too good to be true, particularly from the ÖVP and the Interior Ministry.

But Wolf-Maier is determined: "The question for anyone coming in is whether I get sent from A to B to C through some impenetrable authority, or whether I have a person to talk to who supports me along the way, who makes me feel more welcome and more at home, so that over time, I identify more and more with the country. That’s our goal, that’s what we want to accomplish."

Watch this space!

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