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IMMIGRATION

Tense talks as Italy fumes over Austria migrant ‘slap’

Italy and Austria were set for showdown talks Thursday as Italian politicians and media reacted furiously to Vienna's new anti-migrant measures that could close the border between the two countries.

Tense talks as Italy fumes over Austria migrant 'slap'
ROBERTO TOMASI /EPA

Austrian Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka, who has vigorously defended the controversial package which was driven by a surge of the far right, was due in Rome to explain his government's plans to Italian counterpart Angelo Alfano.

Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has warned that closing the famous Brenner Pass in the Alps would be a “flagrant breach of European rules” and is pushing the European Commission to force Austria to hold off on a move that many fear could come to symbolise the death of Europe's Schengen system of open borders.

But the Vienna government is under intense domestic pressure to stem the volume of asylum seekers and other migrants arriving on its soil with the far-right surging in polls.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon hit out Thursday at what he called “increasingly  restrictive” refugee policies in Europe, saying he was “alarmed by the growing xenophobia here” and elsewhere in Europe, in a speech to the Austrian parliament.

Wedged between the Italian and Balkan routes to northern Europe, Austria received 90,000 asylum requests last year, the second highest in per capita terms of any EU country.

'Whole world's burden'

Legislation approved Wednesday by the Austrian parliament enables the government to respond to spikes in migrant arrivals by declaring a state of emergency which provides for asylum seekers to be turned away at border points.

“We cannot shoulder the whole world's burden,” Sobotka said Wednesday in defence of a law denounced by rights groups as a betrayal of Austria's history as a place of refuge, most notably for dissidents fleeing the old Soviet bloc.

Some 250 police have been deployed at the Brenner Pass and preparations are under way for the construction of a 370-metre (yard) barrier which would be up to four metres (13 foot) high in places, that is due for completion by the end of May.

“Brenner: Vienna's slap in the face,” was the headline in La Stampa daily, in a reflection of the outraged tone of virtually all the coverage.

The pass is a major transport link between southern and northern Europe with an average of 2,500 lorries and 15,000 cars using it every day.

Austria is preparing for a potential closure of the pass as fears grow that migrant arrivals in Italy could spike this summer as a result of the effective closure of the Balkan route into Europe.

Italy insists there is no evidence of that happening and that it is taking steps to prevent it if it does.

Rome also maintains that the numbers of migrants refused asylum in Austria and returning to Italy is rising.

According to the interior ministry, 2,051 people — mainly from Pakistan and Afghanistan — returned to Italy in the first four months of this year, compared with 3,143 for the whole of 2015.

Rome this week unveiled plans to fingerprint migrants crossing the Mediterranean as soon as they are picked up by rescue boats.

Fears of arrival spike

There have long been tensions with other EU countries over migrants arriving in Italy and traveling north without being registered.

If they are not registered, countries like Austria and France and popular destination states like Germany and Sweden do not have the option of sending them back to Italy.

Under the EU's much-criticised Dublin Regulation, asylum claims must be processed by the first country in which refugees arrive.

Italy was warned last year by the European Commission that it must make its registration procedures more efficient.

But Italian officials say the country cannot cope alone with the migrant influx.

More than 350,000 people from all over the world have reached Italy on boats from Libya since the start of 2014, as Europe battles its biggest migration crisis since World War II.

Fears of a spike in arrivals have given added urgency to attempts to find a lasting solution to the crisis and Italy is pushing a plan to introduce NATO naval patrols off Libya in time for the summer — peak season for people smuggling.

Modeled on an existing NATO operation in waters between Turkey and Greece, the plan has been backed by US President Barack Obama and is expected to be approved by alliance leaders at a summit in Warsaw in July.

Italy has also proposed an EU-funded scheme to offer African countries cash to cooperate with the fast-track repatriation of migrants deemed to have no claim to asylum in Europe.

IMMIGRATION

MAP: Who are the foreigners in Austria?

Austria's recent Migration & Integration report paints a detailed picture of who are the immigrants in the country, where they come from, the languages they speak at home and more.

MAP: Who are the foreigners in Austria?

More than a quarter of Austria’s population has a “migration background”, which, according to the statistics institute Statistik Austria, means that they have parents who both were born abroad, regardless of their own nationality or place of birth.

Though migration is a controversial topic for some, Statistik Austria made it clear that if not for it, the country would simply stop growing.

“Austria’s population is growing solely due to immigration. Without it, according to the population forecast, the number of inhabitants would fall back to the level of the 1950s in the long term”, says Statistik Austria’s director general Tobias Thomas.

READ ALSO: IN NUMBERS: One in four Austrian residents now of foreign origin

Who are the foreigners in Austria?

Not every person with a migration background is considered a foreigner, though. Many of them have parents who were born abroad but naturalised Austrians before having children, or they themselves became Austrian citizens later on.

This is why despite 25.4 percent of the population having a “migration background”, the number of people with foreign nationalities is slightly lower at 17.7 percent.

So, who are these people? 

German is still the most common nationality among foreigners in Austria (218,347 people). But much had changed since 2015 (when there were 170,475 Germans).

The number of Romanians has almost doubled (from 73,374 to 140,454), bringing them to the second-largest foreigner community in Austria, behind German citizens.

In 2015, Turkish was the second-largest foreign nationality in Austria (there were 115,433), but they are now the fourth (with 117,944 people), behind German, Romanian, and Serbians (121,643).

They are helping Austria get younger

In Austria, most people without a migration background (36.2 percent) are between 40 to 64 years old. The share is also quite large among those with 65 or more years, reaching 21.8 percent.

When it comes to people with a migration background, most are between 40 to 64 years old (34.4 percent), followed closely by the 20 to 39-year-olds (33.5 percent), and then the children and adolescents until 19 years of age (22 percent). Only 10.2 percent of the people with a migration background are older than 65.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How does the Austrian pension system work?

Regarding nationalities, Austrians have an average age of 44.8, followed by Germans, who average 41.1. The youngest populations are the Afghani living in Austria (24.9 years old on average) and the Syrians (26.3).

Immigration helps keep the Austrian population younger. (Photo by Huy Phan on Unsplash)

Language and education

People with a migration background living in Austria have a different educational profile than the population without a migration background, according to the Statistik Austria data.

They are more often represented in the lowest and highest educational segments and less often in the middle-skilled segment than the population without a migration background.

However, the educational level of immigrants is improving over time, on the one hand, due to increasing internal migration, also of higher educated people within the EU. On the other hand, as a result of the selective immigration policy toward third-country nationals by the Red-White-Red Card, the institution said.

READ ALSO: How Austria is making it easier for non-EU workers to get residence permits

In 2021, 19.4 percent of the Austrian population had higher education, such as a university degree, and 10.9 percent had only mandatory primary schooling. Regarding foreigners, 29 percent had university-level education and 25.1 percent had completed only their primary school years.

When it comes to children and the language they speak, German was the first language of about 72 percent of the four and 5-year-old children in elementary educational institutions in Austria.

READ ALSO: Austria ranked world’s ‘second least friendly country’

With just under six percent each, Turkish and Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian (BKS) were the most common non-German first languages. Around two percent each spoke Romanian, Arabic or Albanian, followed by Hungarian (one percent).

Less than one percent each for Persian, Polish, Slovakian, English, Russian and Kurdish, respectively, as the first languages. Languages other than those mentioned were spoken by slightly more than five percent.

And who is naturalising Austrian?

Not all foreigners become Austrian, even if they have been in the country for decades. One of the reasons is that the process is expensive, but also because it requires applicants to give up their previous citizenship – something many are unwilling to do.

READ ALSO: Could Austria change the rules around citizenship?

According to the report, in 2021, most foreign citizens who naturalised Austrian were from Turkey originally (1,100), followed by Bosnia (921), Serbia (782), Afghanistan (545), and Syria (543).

More than one-third of the people naturalising Austrian last year were already born in Austria, and most of the naturalisations were of young people between 20 and 40 years old.

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