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IMMIGRATION

South Tyrol braces for outcome of Austrian election

The migrant situation at the Brenner crossing point is not as intense as it was in 2015, Arno Kompatscher, the governor of South Tyrol said on Wednesday. But that could change if Austria’s right-wing Freedom Party claims victory in the country’s upcoming presidential election re-run.

South Tyrol braces for outcome of Austrian election
Arno Kompatscher, the governor of South Tyrol. Photo: Gustav Hofer

When Austria threatened to re-introduce border controls at the Brenner Pass in April, it hit a nerve with Italy, and not merely because it risked exacerbating the refugee crisis.

Fearing the impact on trade and the economy – the historic crossing point is a crucial lifeline for exports to northern Europe – the Italian government was swift to react, eventually leading Austria to back down, so long as its southern neighbour stemmed the flow of migrants across the border.

Photo: The Local Italy

The notion of “building a wall” is also a sensitive issue in South Tyrol, which still struggles to heal from old wounds after the region was annexed to Italy by the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of the First World War.

Austria softened its stance a week before presidential elections were held, in which the far-right Freedom Party was narrowly defeated by the independent but Green-backed candidate Alexander van der Bellen.

But the anti-refugee party’s leader, Norbert Hofer, will now get another chance to become the first far-right head of state in the EU after Austria’s constitutional court annulled the result of the May 22nd election and ordered a re-run on October 2nd.

A victory for Hofer could reignite tensions at the Brenner Pass if the party seeks to reintroduce border controls 21 years after customs and immigration posts were removed.

“It’s incomprehensible to us that Austria should want to control the Brenner Pass,” Arno Kompatscher, the governor of South Tyrol, told reporters in Rome on Wednesday.

“It’s not just an economic problem in terms of the crossing point being crucial for trade, but it is also a political problem. It sends out a bad message.

“The Brenner Pass became a central part of the EU discussion a few months ago – if there are controls at the pass, an important symbol of EU unification, it could kill Europe. We hope that the issue of migrants, and fears related to them, will not influence the election campaign.”

Adding to the concerns is the continued arrival of migrants in Italy’s south. More than 3,200 people were rescued in the Mediterranean on Tuesday, bringing the number of migrants who have landed in Italy so far this year to over 80,000.

Kompatscher told The Local that “better controls” have been implemented across Italy which have helped to stymie the movement of migrants towards the north of the country as they seek to enter more prosperous EU states.

Under a government plan, South Tyrol, which has a population of 511,000, must take in 0.9 percent of the total number of migrants who seek asylum in Italy.

As the measure got underway last year, migrant centres were hurriedly built across the region, with the majority being housed in the city of Bolzano.

Apart from in the comune of Brenner, other centres, managed by the charity, Caritas, have sprung up in Vipiteno, Malles, Tesimo, Vandoies, Val di Vizze and Brunico.

Last summer, thousands of migrants managed to cross over to Austria unchallenged, with the country processing 90,000 asylum claims – the second-highest among EU states per capita – in 2015.

Italy’s tiny neighbour, which has a population of 8.74 million, is now trying to more than halve that figure this year.

Kompatscher said there are currently 1,000 asylum seekers in South Tyrol and that the migrant situation is “under control”.

“We don’t have the same amount of people in transit as in 2015,” he added.

“So it’s not a problem right now. But people continue to arrive in the south, and we don’t know yet how Italy will continue to manage the situation. And depending on the Austrian elections, things could change.”

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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