Whom Are You Calling Fremd?

A new word, and a new attitude, could change the way it feels to be foreign in Austria

Natalia Zamabrano Jaramillo is a Colombian citizen, but for over eight years Austria has been her home. The 27-year-old feels at home in this country. But according to the law she is not at home here – she is one of the million people living in Austria who, because they don’t have an Austrian passport, are officially designated as Fremde – “foreigners”.

“For me ‘Fremde’ means someone who doesn’t belong,” she says. “When I am described as a ‘Fremde’ it makes me feel as if I shouldn’t be here. The term seems very negative. That’s also because of the way it is used by politicians.”

As a legal term, ‘Fremde’ might not be quite as bombastically negative as its American equivalent – ‘alien’ – but nonetheless it has connotations of alienation. It’s no coincidence that when Albert Camus’ famous 1942 story of estrangement and disaffection, LEtranger, which is known as The Stranger, or even The Outsider in English, was translated into German, the title chosen was Der Fremde.

The human rights group SOS Mitmensch has just launched a new initiative called “Wir Sind Keine Fremden” (or, “We are not foreigners”), designed to draw attention to the negative connotations of the legal term. The word ‘fremd’ peppers the Austrian law books. We have the Fremdenpolizei, the “Foreigners’ Police” who enforce the Fremdengesetz or “Foreigners’ Law.” SOS Mitmensch spokesman Alexander Pollak doesn’t like it one bit:

“Words determine the way we think and often they determine the way we act. They are essential for the way we perceive things,” Pollak says. “That’s why we don’t think ‘Fremde’ is an adequate term to describe people whose lives are based in Austria.”

SOS Mitmensch proposes a new Wohnbürgerschaft status, a “residential citizenship”, that foreigners in Austria could receive after three years, with full political and social rights, including the right to vote, regardless of citizenship.

According to SOS Mitmensch, the majority of Austria’s Fremden have been living in the country for over five years, most of them working and paying Austrian taxes. Life here is no longer foreign to them, although the law suggests that it is. Pollak says the term ‘Fremde’, with its negative connotations, has led to an artificial distance between those living here who have an Austrian passport and those who have not – and this artificial sense of suspicion has practical side-effects.

“It has implications on many aspects of everyday life: The way you are treated if you go to the bank for example,” he says. “There are so many situations every day in which you are treated differently depending on whether you are an Austrian citizen or not.”

Alev Korun, the human rights spokesperson for the Greens, hails the SOS Mitmensch initiative as a “wake-up call” for civil society. The hundreds of thousands of foreigners, many living in Austria for decades, are “part of our society,” she detailed in a statement. “To constantly denounce them as fremd (foreign) and to thereby alienate them, as the government and right-wing populists have done, is a disservice to community life in Austria.”

It has to be said that things have improved. When I arrived in 2002 and was scouring the adverts for rental apartments, several baldly stated that only Inländer, or Austrian passport holders, need apply. Discrimination laws have since banned such exclusion, but SOS Mitmensch wants a change in culture. They want the wording of the law changed so that even those who do not, or cannot, become Austrian citizens are encouraged to feel at home.

Political scientist and author Gerd Valchars sees it ultimately as a matter of principle, of fairness: “There is an article in the Austrian constitution which states that all citizens are equal before the law. The word citizen should be changed,” he says. “All people should be equal before the law.

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