Drop in state funds puts Austrian refugee NGOs at risk

The Austrian government has come under fire for apparently reducing the amount of funding available for charities working with refugees.

Drop in state funds puts Austrian refugee NGOs at risk

Twelve NGOs received a letter from the Interior Ministry in February asking them to declare donations made to their refugee work so the equivalent figure can be deducted from federal funding given to the charities.

In the letter, the Ministry asked: “What level of donations have been made to support refugee work since September 4th 2015 and how much has already been used for this purpose so far.”

They went on to explain that this information would be used to calculate how much will be deducted from the state funding.

A spokesperson for the Interior Ministry told Der Standard newspaper that they are following an objection made by the Finance Ministry about how they were following the guidelines for granting money to NGOs.

According to the head of the Austrian Red Cross Gerry Foitik however, the move will bring some organisations “to the brink of insolvency”.

As well as the Red Cross, other organisations that received the letter include Johanniter, Volkshilfe Wien, Train of Hope, and the Islamische Föderation.

A spokesperson for the fundraising association Fundraising Verband Austria Günther Lutschinger told the ORF that the NGOs had taken over the role of the authorities, who have failed to properly care for refugees, and this measure is “an attack on the idea of donations”.

“If the state begins to abuse the charitable organisations for their own purpose, then they will stop things like civil society or charitable activity,” he said.

The letter may not be a total shock for the charities, however, as a special funding scheme in place between NGOs and the state since last autumn stipulated that the costs eligible to be funded do not include donations.

Some legal experts have warned that there may be some problems over the legality of excluding donations from eligible funding.

The current agreement only runs until the end of March and negotiations between the government and NGOs on the new rules regarding funding are currently underway.


‘Discrimination’: Austria’s benefit cuts for immigrants ‘go against free movement’

Benefit cuts imposed by Austria on immigrants whose children live in their country of origin contradict EU law becasue they constitute "discrimination on the ground of nationality", a legal adviser at the bloc's top court said on Thursday.

A picture of the sign and logo of the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg
A picture of the sign and logo of the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg on January 13, 2020. (Photo by JOHN THYS / AFP)

The opinion is the latest legal hitch to befall a series of measures — imposed by a previous government that included the far-right — which sought to restrict benefit payments to foreigners.

Richard de la Tour, advocate general of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), said the cuts to child benefits constituted “an infringement of the right of free movement conferred on EU citizens”.

The specific case relates to reforms that came into effect in 2019 which indexed child benefits according to where the recipient’s children live.

This meant reduced payments for tens of thousands of eastern Europeans who work in Austria — notably in the care sector — but whose children remain in their countries of origin.

The advocate general’s advice is not binding on the court but it is seen as influential.

De la Tour found that the cuts were “indirect discrimination on the ground of nationality which is permissible only if it is objectively justified”, and that Austria had failed to do so.

They contravened the principle that “if a migrant worker pays social contributions and taxes in a member state, he or she must be able to benefit from the same allowances as nationals of that state”, he added.

In 2020 the European Commission, supported by six eastern member states, brought an action before the CJEU claiming Austria was “failing to fulfil its obligations”.

Former Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz had said he hoped the cuts would save 114 million euros ($130 million) a year but in 2019 they recouped 62 million euros.

The former coalition also introduced benefit cuts for immigrants who failed to reach a certain level of German, but those measures were subsequently overturned by the Austrian courts.

The government that introduced in the cuts was brought down in a corruption scandal in May 2019.

It included the centre-right Austrian People’s Party (OeVP), which is still the senior partner in the current government.

However their current coalition partners, the Greens, opposed the benefit cuts at the time.