Austrian policy is unrealistic, say volunteers in Greece

Austrian volunteers supporting refugees in Greece have written an open letter to the Austrian government, saying the politicians will trigger a "humanitarian catastrophe" if they continue with their current policy.

Austrian policy is unrealistic, say volunteers in Greece
Refugees crossing the border between Greece and Macedonia. Credit: GEORGI LICOVSKI/EPA

Here is their letter in full:

“Austrians living and working in Greece, who feel deeply connected with this country, appeal to the Austrian government to take a more responsible position in dealing with the refugee crisis. Instead of putting on blinkers, pretending that by closing the borders the problem will go away, the situation has to be tackled head-on at a European level. The Austrian government needs to understand that individual, national approaches fail to produce results, also because solitary advances contradict the basic tenets of the European programme, which is meant to serve as the foundation for a new generation.

“Despite the temporary ceasefire, the war in Syria continues unabated, forcing the frightened civilian population, trapped between the fighting fronts, to keep seeking refuge by fleeing their country. While the neighbours of Syria bear the brunt of the pressure, the callous reaction of the Austrian government, one of the richest countries in the world (ranked 11), puts us to shame. Austrian politicians have claimed that our country has accepted more refugees than most others. But a glance at the facts from Europe’s south proves this statement to be fatally wrong, misrepresenting the data.

“Pushing solutions to the refugee crisis that rely on increasing the pressure on Greece is counterproductive, unrealistic and irresponsible. The Austrian Minister of the Interior maintains that “that will put an end to perilous journeys across the Mediterranean.” No, Mrs Minister, it won’t!

“Dozens of boats continue to arrive on Greece’s shores on a daily basis, often carrying over three thousand desperate people a day. The unspeakable horror of the war, hopelessness in the adjacent countries and the desire to reunite with family members are a strong motivation for those who have nothing to lose to risk the journey towards European destinations. What could stop them? Coast guards? Warships? Walls? Barbed wire fences? None of these measures will have any effect, unless the acts of war are put to an end. Otherwise, traumatised, terrorised people will continue to do anything to escape their misery.

“The Europeans, who cannot see eye to eye among each other and do not even seem to share the most basic values, are busying themselves reinforcing their ominous fortress. As much as they try, it is not going to prevent war refugees from attempting to save their lives. Many more will come, hoping to make it somehow, at all cost, as hope dies last. Europe has no choice but to face the catastrophic situation in the war-torn countries of the near and Middle East responsibly and make every effort to help these people rebuild their lives. This will require foresight, wisdom and the will to convince the doubters (and the constituencies). Otherwise, we will be faced with a generation growing up in war-torn nations in who cannot but feel deepest frustration and animosity towards Europe and its “values”.

“It seems that Greece, often disrespectfully called the “soft belly” of Europe, was assigned the role of henchman, carrying out European barbed-wire politics. Is this the underlying objective of Austria’s advances? Greece, since the beginning of the economic crisis in 2010, has been publicly denied the capability to deal with her own administration. Now the Greek state is supposed to master a situation that would far surpass what Austrian authorities are able to shoulder. Greek volunteers, in cooperation with Greek NGOs and international organisations, are doing their best to save refugees’ lives, to offer medical care, feed and console the desperate. How, we may ask, can a country that is itself on its knees, economically as well as socially, handle this situation? During the year 2015, 856,000 people arrived on Greece’s coast. At the time of writing, this number has already reached over 200,000, with 410 people having drowned or been reported missing. What are the Greeks, impoverished and miserable, supposed to do?

“Half of the capacity of Greek passenger ships between the islands of Lesbos, Kos, Chios and Leros has been assigned to transport refugees to the mainland, thus drastically reducing the capacity for tourists. Islands that almost exclusively subsist on the tourism industry expect a reduction of income during 2016 of 80%.

“Also, we wonder just how the recent Refugee Conference in Vienna could have been held without inviting representatives of the country that is most affected. Was this punishment for Greece’s apparent incapability of securing her maritime borders, for her policy of waving refugees through, for her lack of cooperation? Whatever intent the conference had, Greece should have been at the table, at least in order to make her voice heard and present the facts on the ground. The Austrian minister of the interior, Mrs Mikl-Leitner, expressed the government’s opinion that it was perfectly legitimate to apply pressure at national and regional levels, disregarding repercussions at the European level. Who, we may ask, is allowed to apply such pressure? Countries that heavy-handedly and irresponsibly introduce neo-nationalist methods, in blatant disregard of lawfully binding responsibilities enshrined in the European charter?

“If Austria wishes to pursue unilaterally a “complete barrage against refugees”, our little country will be remembered as the trigger of a humanitarian catastrophe. The government of Austria justifies its reaction by admitting to being incapable of organising and administering a larger influx of refugees. Compared to Greece’s vast maritime border, Austria’s borders are very simple to manage indeed. How is Greece supposed to keep refugees at bay, when Austria’s sole reaction has been to erect walls and barbed wire fences? While it is easy for a landlocked nation like Austria to barrage herself behind walls, such a politics of avoidance is impossible for a country comprising over 2,000 islands and with a coastline of almost 14,000km (ranked 13 worldwide). In view of her well-documented chronic structural weakness, Greece and her economy require massive help to get on their feet, amid the worst refugee crisis since world war two. We are deeply embarrassed by the confused, shortsighted “vision” that the Austrian government hysterically chose to impose on the western Balkans (her former “crown colonies”?). Is the misery of an ever increasing segment of the Greek population not worth being taken into account as well?

“We appeal to the Austrian government to act reasonably, use common sense judgement and apply the principles of human rights. Short-sighted neo-nationalism should have no place in Europe of the 21st century. This is the least we owe to our historic past.”

Mag Regina Wiesinger (Teacher, German School of Athens), Marion Hoffmann (former UNHCR official) and Winfried Lechner, PhD (Formal linguist, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens)

Signed by

Martin Scharnhorst (Director)
Dr jur Ulrike Merlin
Margarita Vamia
Verena Vogiatzoglou
Elisabeth Papadopulos
Hilde Gruber
Dr Marianne Danner (Teacher, German School of Athens)
Dr Christos Vasdaris (Alumni University of Vienna, Archaeologist, Teacher, German School of Athens)
Mag Christine Pediaditis (Teacher, German School of Athens)
Dr jur Elfriede Damalas, Athens
Mag Helena Zabakas (Research Center “Dimokritos”, Athens)
Christine Zabakas
Mag Phil Claudia Stamou (Archaeologist)
Margareta Manola (Teacher, retired)
Iris Galetakis
Manuela Galetakis
Helga Rogalas
Eleanna Rogalas
Konstantin Rogalas
Gundi Frangouli

For members


‘I’ll probably return to the UK’: Moving to Austria as a Brit post-Brexit

Moving to Austria as a British citizen is not as easy as it was a couple of years ago, but it is still possible if you’re willing to jump through a few more bureaucratic hoops.

'I’ll probably return to the UK': Moving to Austria as a Brit post-Brexit

For British people that were living in Austria by the end of December 2020, nothing much has changed to everyday life when it comes to their status and rights (apart from losing voting rights in local elections and freedom of movement across the EU).

But for any Brits arriving since January 1st 2021, they have been considered as third country nationals and subject to the immigration rules for non-EU or EEA citizens.

This has been a shock to some British people that are not used to navigating EU immigration systems – and a stark reminder of how different moving to an EU country was before Brexit.

FOR MEMBERS: How can British second home owners spend more than 90 days in Austria?

To find out how the process now works, The Local spoke to two people who have done it (or tried to). 

Here’s what they have to say about their experiences.

Navigating Austrian immigration during Covid

Helen Murray, 30, moved to Austria in 2021 after first being granted a Visa D to enter the country and then securing a settlement permit (researcher) to take up a PhD position in Vienna.

Visa D allows third country nationals to enter Austria for up to six months, but as Helen applied for the visa at the height of Covid-19 lockdowns in early 2021, it was a complicated process.

Helen told The Local: “To get the visa I had to organise everything without going to Austria. This meant that I had to sort out renting somewhere (visa required rental contract) over the internet without seeing any apartments, and needing somewhere that was furnished – not easy in Vienna – so I could see out the quarantine.”

Additionally, Helen had to book a flight to Austria to secure the visa, even though flights from the UK were banned from landing in Austria at the time due to Covid-19 restrictions.

READ MORE: Reader question: Are Brits in Austria still banned from giving blood?

Since arriving in Austria, Helen has also noticed the difference in rights between British people that have the Article 50 card (a post-Brexit residency permit for Brits that were living in Austria before December 31st 2020), and those that don’t.

Helen said: “Nearly all of my British friends here have Article 50 cards, and so have all these rights that I don’t have. 

“It’s particularly galling because I know exactly how easy it was to come here before Brexit. I think now to stay in Austria you have to want it because it’s a lot of work, time and money.”

But when asked if Helen would still make the move to Austria post-Brexit with the benefit of hindsight, it was a question she initially found hard to answer. 

She said: “It’s a tricky question to answer because I have mixed feelings about moving here, but it’s mostly personal and professional reasons which would probably still be there regardless of Brexit.

“I would definitely say though that Brexit has made it too difficult for me to want to stay once my current contract is up, and I’ll most probably be returning to the UK. 

“This is because there are an increasing number of hurdles to pass with every visa extension and, because of Austria’s policy of not allowing dual citizenship, there’s no reward for staying here and doing all that as I wouldn’t be willing to give up my UK citizenship.”

READ ALSO: ‘Ashamed, embarrassed, disappointed’ – How Brits in the EU feel about the UK

Dreams of retirement in the Austrian Alps

Gerry Stapleton, a retired property developer from the UK, has owned a second home in Zell am See in Salzburg since 2008. He was hoping to gain residency in Austria to bypass the rule that states third country nationals can only spend 90 days in every 180 days in the EU.

Earlier this year, Gerry and his partner were granted temporary residence permits but came across difficulties when trying to secure health insurance – something that is mandatory for all residents in Austria.

Gerry told The Local: “What we were required to show was not that we had travel insurance but that we had proper, full medical insurance cover, similar to that provided by the Austrian and UK health care systems. 

Zell am See, in Austria (Photo by Markus Lederer on Unsplash)

“The authorities in Zell am See tried to be helpful and suggested at least six insurance companies whose cover would have been satisfactory. I tried them all, and some UK and international companies as well, but with no luck. 

“The major stumbling block was our ages – I am 74 and my partner is 77 – and none of the companies would offer cover for someone aged 75 or older.”

The solution would have been for Gerry and his partner to transfer their healthcare from the UK system to Austria. However, this would have left them without any coverage in their home country, which wasn’t suitable as they still want to spend part of the year in the UK.

Gerry added: “We have, therefore, reluctantly withdrawn our applications, although I keep trying to find something that might help.”

FOR MEMBERS: EXPLAINED: The 2022 salary requirements for Austria’s EU Blue Card

Brits in Austria

So, what are the options for British people who want to move to Austria post-Brexit? Here are a few possibilities.

First, there is the Red-White-Red Card for qualified or skilled workers from non-EU countries that want to live and work in Austria. If granted, the visa is valid for 24 months and allows visa holders to bring family members with them.

However, there are different types of visas issued under the umbrella of the Red-White-Red Card, depending on the applicant’s professional background.

For example, those with advanced degrees and management experience in the fields of mathematics, informatics, natural sciences or technology are considered as very highly qualified workers. They can initially enter Austria with a Job Seeker Visa, which can later be transferred to a Red-White-Red Card following a job offer.

Alternatively, there is a category for skilled workers in shortage occupations, such as engineers, carpenters, physicians, chefs and accountants. For this category, applicants must score a minimum of 50 points in the eligibility criteria (including elementary level German and English language skills), show proof of relevant qualifications and have a valid job offer.

READ ALSO: Can foreigners buy a second home in Austria?

Additionally, there are several other categories for the Red-White-Red Card, including one for recent graduates from an Austrian education institution (which Helen Murray would be eligible for) and family reunification. Each category has its own eligibility criteria. 

And there is the EU Blue Card, which is available for non-EU citizens with a job offer in Austria with a salary of at least €66,593.

Then there is the Austrian residency option.

Austria is a great place to live, but getting a residence permit can be tricky. (Photo by Frank J on Pexels)

Applying for residency in Austria is a big commitment and involves giving up residency in the UK (but not citizenship).

It also usually means losing access to the NHS because you will be required to contribute to the social security system in Austria, unless you have private medical insurance (an issue encountered by Gerry Stapleton).

In the case of retired people, Patrick Kainz, a Vienna-based immigration lawyer, told The Local in a previous article that the best approach is to apply for a “gainful employment excepted” residents permit (Niederlassungsbewilligung ausgenommen Erwerbstätigkeit) that allows for income through a pension or private funds. There are limits on how many permits can be issued in Austria each year.

For this category of Austrian residency, single people need a minimum monthly income of €2,060.98 and couples need to earn at least €3,251.42 a month to be eligible. An additional amount of €318 for each child also applies. These figures are twice the standard amount of the General Social Insurance Act (ASVG).

However, immigration lawyer Osai Amiri advises any British people wanting to pursue an immigration route to Austria to inform themselves about the necessary requirements and prepare for a long application process.

Amiri told The Local: “Once they have determined which permit best suits their plans, they should start collecting and preparing the documents that they would have to submit to the Austrian authorities.

“Only after that should they travel to Austria and submit their application for the respective permit in Austria.

“Since the visa-free stay of British citizens is limited, they can in that way save themselves a lot of time and would not have to travel back and forth in order to obtain the decision of the Austrian authorities during the visa-free stay.”

Additionally, Amiri suggested British people can pursue other pathways to Austria, such as permits for students, artists and scientists. 

Useful links

Federal government official migration website

British in Austria

Vienna Business Agency

This article originally referenced the standard rate for the minimum monthly income for the gainful employment excepted residency permit, as stated on the Austrian migration website. It has now been updated to include the rate for third country nationals (twice the standard rate).