Asylum Reforms sparks Division in Austria

Thierry Avice Translated by Aurélie Merabti
23 Janvier 2015

While the National Assembly is discussing reforms to the right of asylum in France, a heated political debate is troubles troubling Austria around the question of asylum seekers: So, what are the terms of the right of asylum reforms in the Alpine Republic and why is it causing such outra-ge?

Crédits DR
Crédits DR
The status of an asylum seeker in Austria is defined by the Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, signed July 28th 1951. In order to come to a decision on the refugee’s right to asylum, it has to be possible to identify a real threat to the physical integrity or the life of the refugee. In that way, the refugee is different from the migrant. 

The right of asylum in Austria today

What is the actual current procedure for the welcoming of the refugee in Austria? First, the asylum seeker has to make a claim of asylum to a federal First reception Center”. Medical care is given to the asylum seeker, and they will then be heard by police forces. The police primarily seek to determine the identity of the refugee, his country of origin and the path he took to escape. The point of this examination is to determinate if Austria is able to deal with the asylum claim. A European Union regulation – known as the Dublin III regulation - establishes the rules of competences of the EU countries with regards to the right of asylum. For example, the regulation stipulates that the State through which the asylum seeker first entered is responsible for his asylum claim. 

This judicial procedure of the federal services must be concluded within less than twenty days: however, in practice it can last up to one month. During that time, the asylum seekers are hosted in centers in the Länder and are given a “white card”. This card proves that the refugee is legally here on Austrian soil. 

When Austria is legally considered to be able, the asylum procedure can begin. The goal of the asylum seeker is to achieve the right to asylum. According to the definition of the Geneva Convention, this procedure consists of checking the validity of the status of the refugee and the level of real danger in the asylum seeker’s country of origin. During the procedure, the refugee received receives basic help, which includes health insurance. The children of the The asylum seekers’ children have to go to school. The costs for those different procedures and for the basic help are supported 60 % by the federal State and 40 % by the Länder.

Reforms to the right of asylum in Austria

The current Austrian asylum reform originally originates from the poor standards of the Federal Center Receptions, which are unable to deal  with the flood of refugees. The three existing First Reception Centers, which are in Upper Austria, Lower Austria and the airport at Vienna, are not enough anymore to support the needs. Furthermore, the federal State has voted on new quotas for refugees’ receptions: in that way each Land has to increase its reception capacity for the refugees by the end of January 2015. In order to face this new political setup, the governors of different Länder met on November 19th 2014 in Klagenfurt, Carinthia, and agreed on the inauguration of seven new Reception Centers for refugees. Some cooperation agreements have been negotiated, for example between Vienna and Burgenland or between the Carinthia and the Styria. Complaints have been expressed by some peripheral and sparsely populated Länder such as the Vorarlberg or the Tyrol, whose governors think that these reception centers would be more useful in more populated territories such as the region of Linz or of Vienna. 

This reform represents costs for the Länder, which have to provide some adapted infrastructure and hire administrative personnel. A member of the Green party suggested that the federal State only takes care of the verification costs of the juridical competences of Austria and also of the basic help for refugees. The actual distribution (60/40) should nevertheless be changed by the reform. According to the Minister of Home Affairs Johanna Mikl-Leitner, the main issue of this reform is not financial but mostly an issue of “good will”. 

A political debate, so what are the interpretations?

The intense debate caused by this reform is certainly fuelled by some financial problems, which raise tensions between the center and the suburbs, but those issues alone do not explain this political division. In that way we can formulate some theories, such as the one of mistrust from the Austrian population regarding asylum seekers, often named as “Scheinasylanten” (“so called refugees”). This term was popularized by the BZÖ and the FPÖ, which are openly xenophobic far-right parties. With this aim in mind, refugees are considered as burdens by the Austrian social system. The Länder refuse to pay for policies aimed at furthering the social and professional integration of the asylum seeker, who could fight those prejudices. For example the FPÖ fight against the idea that opening the job market for asylum seekers would according to the Populist Party provoke a disloyal competition for the national workforce. 

Racist prejudices spread by the extreme right wing might be the cause of all this reluctance in the application of the Austrian asylum procedure. Willi Korak, member of the BZÖ, recently said that Austria welcomes only the “violent Chechens” as refugees. On November 12th, the FPÖ organized a protest in Traiskirchen (Lower Austria), which has a new federal first reception center. The witty remark of this protest march was “das Boot is voll” (“the boat is full”). We can oppose this motto with the ageing Austrian population: the question of immigration and asylum politics always gives rise to fantasy and objection.