Clear and Present Chaos

The Debate Over EU Work Permits has Thown the Austrian Government into Turmoil

Green Card, Austrian Card, Blue Card, no card, immigrants, asylum seekers, economic refugees, illegal residents, non-Austrian aliens – no other political issue has caused so much intellectual, political and bureaucratic havoc in Austria in recent decades as immigration policy. The various proposals have been going around as on a conveyer belt at baggage claim, reappearing every few years with the same labels.

From time to time, one has been taken off and pushed into the parliamentary process, if the label was attractive enough for one of the political travelers.

Just as an example: The head of the Green Party, Alexander van der Bellen, recently championed the Canadian model, a system of points by which Canada decides which immigrant will be welcomed and which had better not apply. The Canadian model had been the centre of the political discussion once already, ten and more years ago. So has the Australian and even the US Green Card. If Austria – and Europe for that matter – can not get their act together regarding demographics and economics, the various models may well re-appear in the public arena again in 2017: Same facts, same arguments, same confusion.

For some 20 years now, Austria has been a special case, because of the sloppy political debates which never to this day managed to communicate the clear distinction between asylum seekers, economic refugees and immigrants – welcomed or not. Quite often it seems that this confusion was deliberate, being exploited by some political groups and certainly by some in the media.

The climax in this disorienting state of affairs was reached recently when the confusion suddenly had a name: Arigona Zogaj, the girl that avoided being deported to Kosovo by going into hiding. Was this admirable or despicable? How should this case be understood?

Neither politicians nor the media could agree: Were Arigona and her family illegal but well integrated? Rejected asylum seekers but economic refugees? Unwanted but yet tolerated? Above all, the case of the Zogaj family highlighted Austria’s gravest political mistake in immigration policy:

There is absolutely no clarity, neither in the laws nor in their execution.

Legal certainty is one commodity that is not being offered to any non-Austrians, not even to those in the top social and economic strata, like scientists and academics.

One might think that it cannot be all that difficult to look at the facts and come up with clear cut solutions – like Canada, or Australia for instance. But there is an initial and fundamental problem: Those countries acknowledge the fact that they need immigrants, whether they come as refugees or on working permits.

Austria officially denies being a country open for immigration. Because of this state of denial, the public debate and the consequences remain vague. The reason: panic that the right-wing parties might make political gains.

After Austria was confronted with almost unmanageable numbers of refugees from the former Yugoslavia, there was a time in the mid-nineties when sensible laws were within political reach. But this was not in the political interest of the FPÖ and Jörg Haider then, and therefore not in the interest of the Kronen Zeitung, which at that point was Haider’s strongest and most influential ally. Every legal attempt to bring some clarification to the topic turned out piece-meal, featuring the political taste of the day. So the pressure politicians felt from the Kronen Zeitung was one decisive factor. The other was fundamental Angst, basic distrust, and in the early days, a totally understaffed and under qualified bureau of immigration.

So today’s government knows it, the business community knows it, the experts in social security laws know it, but hardly anyone dares to say it out loud: Austria needs immigrants, needs people who want to live and work here, needs specialists and scientists.

But how to organize the consequence of these needs remains open to every dishonest and confused discussion.

As Reinhold Mitterlehner, the secretary general of the Chamber of Commers, recently pointed out, 55% of all highly qualified employees willing to leave their own countries emigrate to the United States. Only five percent come into the EU-fold. The numbers speak for themselves, especially since the immigration laws in the US cannot be called liberal by any stretch of the imagination.

It is totally inexplicable that it should be impossible to lay down clear rules, even if they were as restrictive as politicians think necessary. Then a would-be immigrant could choose to accept difficult procedures or reject them.

It is a grave misunderstanding to believe that vague rules are any sign of humane policies. The contrary is true. Only unquestionable transparency is an act of humanity: Unwavering acceptance of the Geneva Convention for asylum seekers; clear rules for illegal residents; unmistakable pre-conditions for immigration – and clear criteria for special cases.

As the present discussion about the Blue Card demonstrates, Austria is not the only confused EU-country. But may be one of the more insidious ones.


A longtime columnist and foreign editor for Die Presse, Annaliese Rohrer writes a weekly column in the Austrian daily Kurier. She is also a frequent political panelist and commentator on Austrian Television.

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