A Little Less Torture

The amendments to the new Austrian Foreigners Law are far from benign

The political struggles over immigration have entered another round with a revision of the Foreigners’ Law submitted to the Austrian Parliament Feb. 22.  After heated negotiations in the governing coalition of Social Democrats (SPÖ) and the People’s Party (ÖVP), a compromise was reached that softened some of the worst features, but left most of the punishing restrictions intact.

The new law foresees holding people claiming political oppression in asylum centers for up to seven days, and requires a higher level of German from immigrants from third world countries, equivalent to a high school leaving certificate.

“To have German skills before moving here is harassment, far from reality for people seeking to immigrate, and primarily serves as a barrier,” says Sigrid Maurer from the Austrian University Students Association. This is obvious to anyone who has come here as an immigrant; to acquire a working knowledge of German without being surrounded by it every day is extremely difficult if not impossibleÍ. And for children, who absorb an active language so easily, acquiring it elsewhere happens only with a parent who is a native speaker.

These features have drawn criticism, particularly from the Austrian Green Party, as have the claim that the negotiated changes have improved the conditions for children – a softening of requirements for families to be separated during the required custody phase are seen as disingenuous. “The amendments violate human rights and conventions protecting children,” said Green spokeswoman Eva Glawischnig in Die Presse, describing Interior Minister Fekter actions as “heartless and brainless, as well as damaging to the economy.”

Defense Minister Darabos defended the family custody provisions in Die Presse as a “child friendly” solution. In the earlier draft, parents in custody pending deportation were forced to decided either give their children up to the authorities or take them along into custody, often in poor conditions. Interior Minister Fekter has now promised appropriate accommodations for children and families, and limits to custody of not more than one or two days before deportation.

None of this impresses Green Party MP Alev Korun, who described by proposed law as “massively stricter,” and sees chances for a successful application for asylum very poor under this law.

“It’s a new and hugely restrictive package,” she said. “It’s like I tell you I am going to slap you in the face 100 times, and you say, ‘No, No!’ And I say, ‘Fine, I’ll just slap you 80 times.’

“It’s really a game they play: they make a policy that is very, very restrictive, then everybody protests, and then they say, ‘Sorry, we will make it better.’ But they make it only a little better, and in reality, everything is getting worse all the time.”

What many foreigners feel today is they are no longer welcome in Austria. This is true of the skilled as well as the unskilled. And those of us who came in the 90s or earlier realize that people who come today are arriving into a very different Austria than we came to 15 to 20 years ago. Which seems ironic, as the percentages of foreign born in Austria are higher today than at any time since WWII – 18% nation wide, and 36% in Vienna, and as high as 44% in some districts.

There is no point in trying to keep foreigners out; they are already here.But that may be exactly the problem. Change is difficult, and a land-locked country, with the pressure of immigration coming from almost every side, may feel this particularly keenly. But this has always been Austria’s — and even more so Vienna’s – condition. At the dawn of the Great War, the Austro-Hungarian Empire comprised 13 ethnic nationalities, and the Imperial Hymn had 11 recognized translations. In Vienna in 1900, 20% of the population spoke Czech, as today they speak Serbian or Croatian.

As I write hundreds, perhaps thousands of people are gathering for a Transnational Migrants Strike on Viktor Adler Markt  in the 10th District, the first of a series of events planned leading up to a hearing in Parliament scheduled for April 5, and a second one April 13.

To be continued….

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