Austria has many wonderful qualities and I’ve always enjoyed visiting and learning from it. But I’m not so comfortable with a recent announcement by the country’s Bundeskanzler Sebastian Kurz, who plans to link welfare benefits for asylum-seekers with their competence in German.
To date, monthly social welfare payments for Austrians and asylum-seekers alike are a minimum of 863 Euros (£768/$983) for a single person. In future, asylum-seekers will receive 563 Euros (£501/$641) until they achieve B1 in German, though an exception will be made for those who can speak English to at least level C1 (see here for a full explanation of the language levels).
Previously, attendance at a language course was required only after a positive decision on asylum. I reckon at least a year is needed for someone from a different language tradition to achieve B1 in German, quite possibly longer. And that is assuming that (a) you are literate in your own language and (b) can find a course in the first place. Effectively this measure places asylum-seekers in a waiting room, where they will inevitably struggle to survive until they can leave a course with a nice neat certificate.
Bundeskanzler Kurz has justified the change with reference to the 2015 ‚refugee wave‘. This group was disproportionately composed of young adult men, and Kurz claims that a high proportion have preferred welfare to an apprenticeship. Even if there is something in his claim (if so, much of it is due to the slow rate at which asylum claims are being processed), the decision will also affect children, single parents and older asylum seekers.
The new requirement is also being introduced at a time when support for language courses has been cut. In the last year Austria recognised 22,000 asylum seekers; yet there are only 7,000 places available. And when the Catholic adult education provider in Steiermark offered its own courses, it was roundly attacked by Kurz’s coalition partner, the Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs.
This is among a number of migration-related measures introduced by the government, which is a ‘blue-black’ coalition of Kurz’s conservative Österreichische Volkspartei with the right-populist Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs. Remarkably, some of these measures have been directed against migrants from elsewhere in the EU (but not, significantly, against migrants from Switzerland).
Times have clearly changed in the Alpine paradise since I posted a rather positive and optimistic analysis of Austria’s adult education partnership and its achievement. The coalition’s decision seems to me wrong in principle and likely to backfire in practice. Meanwhle, I have great sympathy for those adult language teachers who will be faced with the practical consequences, and with those migrants who no doubt will be roundly denounced for failing to integrate.