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Austria votes to reject most migrants and refugees

The Austrian parliament on Wednesday adopted one of Europe's toughest asylum laws, as the country's political leaders struggle to halt the surging far-right which is leading in presidential polls.

Austria votes to reject most migrants and refugees
Some of the 108 migrants rescued from the Mediterranean disembark at Lampesusa in April. ELIO DESIDERIO/EPA

The hotly-disputed bill, which passed by 98 to 67, allows the government to declare a “state of emergency” if the migrant numbers suddenly rise and reject most asylum-seekers directly at the border, including from war-torn countries like Syria.

Rights groups, religious leaders and opposition parties have condemned the legislation — the latest in a string of hardline measures against migrants — as violating international human rights conventions.

UNHCR, the UN's refugee agency, warned that it “removes a centrepiece of refugee protection”.

But Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka insisted Austria had no other choice as long as “so many other European Union members fail to do their part” to stop the influx.

“We cannot shoulder the whole world's burden,” he said.

Wedged between Europe's two main refugee routes – the Balkans and Italy — Austria received around 90,000 asylum requests in 2015, the second-highest in the bloc on a per capita basis.

More than a million people, primarily from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, landed in Europe last year, triggering the continent's worst migration crisis since the aftermath of World War II.

Many braved a short but dangerous sea journey from Turkey to Greece, before trekking up through the Balkans toward western and northern Europe.

To reduce the flow, the EU recently struck a controversial deal with Ankara, under which all “irregular” migrants reaching Greece after March 20 will be returned to Turkey.

Although the pact has led to a sharp drop in arrivals, the International Organisation for Migration last week warned that the numbers were “once again ticking up”.

The crisis has boosted populist fringe parties across Europe, pressuring traditionally centrist governments to adopt a much firmer stance on migrants.

'Dangerous tools'

Under Austria's new law, the government can now declare an emergency if the migrant flow threatens the country's “national security”.

Border authorities will then only grant access to refugees facing safety threats in a neighbouring transit country or whose relatives are already in Austria. Some groups including minors and pregnant women will however be exempt from the rule.

 The “special measures” will also force migrants to request asylum directly at the border in yet-to-be-built registration centres, where they may be held for up to 120 hours while their application is being checked.

The restrictions are similar to tough rules introduced by the right-wing government in neighbouring Hungary last year.

In addition, MPs also voted to restrict existing asylum laws by placing limits on the length of asylum granted to migrants and making it harder for their families to join them.

“These are extremely dangerous tools that are being sharpened here, especially if they fall into the wrong hands,” warned the leader of the small NEOS opposition party, Mathias Strolz, ahead of the vote.

Shortly before the vote, a group of protesters threw leaflets from the parliament's upper gallery reading “Don't walk over dead bodies, it won't keep you afloat”.

It comes after the candidate of the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), Norbert Hofer, sent shock waves through the political establishment by winning the first round of a presidential ballot on Sunday.

The two candidates of the ruling centrist coalition failed to even make it into the runoff on May 22.

The FPÖ also looks set to do well in the next scheduled general election in 2018.

'Far from an invasion'

Trying to stem voter desertion to the far-right, Austria's government erected border fences and introduced an annual cap on asylum-seekers.

It also pressured other countries along the Balkan trail to close their frontiers earlier this year, effectively shutting the route to migrants.

The clampdown left some 54,000 migrants currently stranded in Greece.

It also pushed people smugglers to seek out new routes into Europe, including via Italy, which has so far this year seen 26,000 migrants land on its shores after setting off from Libya.

The surge in arrivals in neighbouring Italy has prompted Austria to announce plans to re-instate border controls — including a 370-metre (1,200-feet) fence — at the Brenner pass in the Alps, a key transport corridor between northern and southern Europe.

The move has sparked protests at the checkpoint in recent weeks and drawn strong condemnation from Italy.

“We're very far from an invasion,” Foreign Affairs Minister Paolo Gentiloni told Austrian newspaper Die Presse on Wednesday.

For members

MOVING TO AUSTRIA

‘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).

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