Immigration up as debate fails to calm down

Immigration is on the rise, new figures show.

The federal interior ministry – which is headed by Johanna Mikl-Leitner of the People’s Party (ÖVP) – said today (Tues) that 114,000 people migrated to Austria while only 87,000 left the country in 2010.

The ministry pointed out that only 107,000 settled in the country in 2009.

Germans are the largest community of foreigners in Austria with 220,000 members, followed by people from Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo (209,000). Kosovars are also strongly represented among asylum applicants. Around 11,000 people applied for political asylum in Austria. Most of them left Chechnya, Afghanistan and Kosovo to do so. There are no figures on how many applicants got the thumbs up as procedures often take years while people hoping for asylum are not allowed to take on work in Austria – aspects that have been harshly criticised by the Greens and many non-government organisations (NGOs). Austria allowed 21.7 per cent of asylum seekers to stay in 2009 when 15,785 applications were made. Among the European Union’s (EU) 27 members, the Netherlands had the highest acceptance rate as 48.3 per cent of people asking for political asylum were informed they could settle down in the country. With 1.1 per cent of approved requests, Greece found itself at the bottom. Spain came second from bottom at 7.8 per cent, while Denmark took second place behind the Netherlands with 47.9 per cent.

Immigrants settling in Austria were found to be slightly younger than Austrians. While the average age of Austrians was 41.9 years as of 1 January 2011, foreigners new in the country were just 40.4 years old. They also have more children, figures show. However, education experts have emphasised that kids growing up to poorly skilled parents who earn little are under greater risk of failing to achieve more than a job demanding only basic skills than their counterparts in wealthy families. Studies have shown that an alarmingly high number of both Austrian and foreign teenagers lack writing and reading skills when they leave school. These developments are posing a great threat to the competitiveness of the Austrian economy, experts have warned.

Only 6,135 people obtained Austrian citizenship in 2010, down from 8,100 the year before.

Discussions considering immigration aspects have increasingly focused on Muslims over the past years. Especially the Freedom Party’s (FPÖ) controversial campaigns against “immigrants unwilling to integrate” who allegedly lived in “parallel societies” have caused a tenser climate.

The government coalition of Social Democrats (SPÖ) and the People’s Party (ÖVP) tried to make a stand by naming Sebastian Kurz, deputy head of the ÖVP’s Vienna branch, as the country’s first councillor for integration. While some political rivals of the coalition criticised that his office was overseen by the interior ministry instead of being linked to the social affairs ministry, some NGOs welcomed the nomination.

Kurz said he wanted to create a more constructive debate and get immigrants to feel proud of Austria. The ÖVP official claimed learning German was the key to get along in a well-functioning society. At the same time, the Green Party hit out at the government for increasing the level of German skills people willing to come to Austria must be capable of upon arrival. They found support by some immigration pressure groups in their claim that people growing up in impoverished regions were doomed to fail as they had no access to German courses. Meanwhile, the coalition aims to get more high-skilled foreigners by introducing a so-called Red White Red Card (Rot-Weiß-Rot Card). The card features a catalogue of criteria deciding over whether a person interested in moving to Austria to take on a job had to fulfil to do so.

The new integration councillor faced tough opposition especially in the weeks after his nomination took place in April. He admitted not having expected such widespread criticism. “But I’m happy that the discussion is less emotional and more facts-orientated now,” he said in a recent radio interview. Kurz caused controversy by failing to strictly rule out a partnership with the FPÖ. However, he disapproved the opposition party’s approach to the matter he was ordered to focus on. “(FPÖ boss Heinz-Christian) Strache is creating fear among people. I disagree with this approach to integration aspects,” Kurz said, adding that he wanted to present a number of role model integration support initiatives to encourage people to get active.

Attempts by the government and the Green Party to de-escalate the heated debate have been thwarted by the FPÖ and the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ) who referred to statistics showing that the jobless rate among Turkish migrants was around twice as high as the Austrian rate.

The right-wing parties felt confirmed in their reluctance to realise the potential of immigration when Kadri Ecvet Tezcan, the Turkish ambassador in Vienna, launched an exceptional attack on Austrian politicians and citizens.

Tezcan told Die Presse newspaper last November: “The Turks (in Austria) don’t want anything from you. They are happy – they just don’t want to be treated like a virus.”

He also suggested Austria should “chase away” foreigners if the country did not want them to live here. Tezcan claimed that his fellow countrymen were “constantly pushed to the corners of society” in Austria while Croats were welcome in the country’s society “for being Christians.”

The Turkish government refused to remove the diplomat from power despite the statements he had made which angered both the highest representatives of the government and the right-wing opposition.

Meanwhile, economists appeal on the Austrian government to show more effort in actively competing for immigrants considering the lack of skilled staff at domestic firms as the economy is recovering from the recession. Bernhard Felderer, chief of the Vienna-based Institute for Advanced Studies (IHS), and other opinion leaders, have said it was a mistake to ask the EU for a seven-year barrier to people from the 10 countries which joined the EU in 2004.

Austria and Germany, which implemented the same regulations, were ordered to abandon the rule last May. The move means people from Eastern European (EE) member nations of the EU seeking work in Austria must not experience any disadvantages in competing with Austrians and jobseekers from EU states in Western Europe. People from Romania and Bulgaria, which joined the EU only in 2007, do not benefit from the act which went into force on 1 May. Experts have claimed the economy would do much better now had Austria abstained from introducing the barrier in 2004.

The FPÖ warned that Austria will be “swamped” with unemployed people from countries in EE as of 1 May due to the change in law, while most analysts said they were convinced that the domestic job market will manage to cope with the expected increase of people looking for work. Most recent figures show that more people than ever in Austria have work, while the country keeps having one of the lowest jobless rates among all EU countries.

Around 4.3 per cent of people residing in Austria were out of work in May. Only the Netherlands did better among all other 26 EU members with an unemployment rate of 4.2 per cent. Luxembourg was in third place (4.5 per cent). Spain found itself on the other side of the scale. More than one in five people living in the southern European state were out of work in May.