Austria’s far-right government has pegged social benefits to German language skills and family size. While the government defended the reform, the cuts were met with criticism by opposition parties and UNHCR.
Foreigners and large families face welfare cuts in Austria, under a reform that was passed by Austria's ruling right-wing parties in Parliament on Thursday. While the standard minimum welfare payment is set at €885 per month, foreigners will get €300 less starting in June, unless they can prove intermediate German or advanced English skills.
Parents will receive €221 and €133 for their first and second child, but only €44 for each additional sibling. This new rule particularly affects immigrants, who tend to have more children than Austrians, dpa reports.
"The rise in foreigners who receive minimum welfare ... must be stemmed in favor of Austrians in need," legislator Dagmar Belakowitsch of the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) said in Parliament.
"German skills are a key requirement for integrating into the job market, and for the functioning of our society," said the head of the center-right People's Party (ÖVP) parliamentary group, August Wöginger.
In Austria, the main condition for the standard minimum welfare payment, which is called the needs-based minimum benefit (“bedarfsorientierte Mindestsicherung”), is the need for material assistance. According to the Asylum Information Database (AIDA), social assistance is distributed by the social department of the federal province. The tax office is responsible for the family allowance, while health insurance is responsible for the child care allowance. The needs-based minimum benefit is granted in the respective federal province where the beneficiary resides.
Of the average 239,000 people who were receiving the standard minimum welfare in 2017, nearly half were foreigners and nearly a third were refugees, according to the most recent official statistics.
Financial cutbacks on refugees
In the second half of 2018, Austria's conservative government introduced a number of strict immigration cuts that saw refugees given markedly less social assistance than native-born Austrians. A number of Austrian provinces in recent years introduced rules precluding refugees with a temporary residence permit from access to the needs-based minimum benefit under the same conditions as Austrian nationals, instead offering them lower levels of support.
In November, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled against the curbs on refugee rights saying that a 2015 regulation that saw Austria give minimal social assistance to refugees was not compatible with EU directives on the recognition of "third-party" nationals, meaning non-Austrians and non-EU citizens. It further said that persons granted refugee status must be granted the same level of social assistance as nationals of the host country in accordance with the recast Qualification Directive, regardless of whether they have temporary or permanent residence.
The measures introduced by the Austrian government in 2018 also included reduced access to German courses and apprenticeship programs as well as a controversial rule that asks migrants to turn over their cell phones and valuables at the border.
When approached by InfoMigrants, a ECJ spokesperson said the court wasn’t able to comment on the most recent welfare reform yet.
UNHCR and opposition criticize reform
In a statement, UNHCR called the required German skill level an “unjustified discrimination” and warned that the welfare reform violated not only the Geneva Refugee Convention from 1951, but also the EU Qualification Directive (2011/95/EU), both of which mandate that refugees and Austrian citizens must be treated equally in regards to social welfare.
UNHCR also warned of the “worrisome plans” to give even less money to those under subsidiary protection as it would hurt their chances of integration. While the EU Qualification Directive from 2011 grants subsidiary protection to those having to fear physical harm upon return to their homeland, it does not give those under subsidiary protection the same rights as refugees in terms of social welfare.
Austria's left-wing and liberal opposition charged that the welfare amendments deepen social divisions and foster poverty. "It's our firm belief that politics must not stigmatize certain groups of people," social democratic party chief Pamela Rendi-Wagner said.
Basic care for asylum seekers
In Austria, asylum seekers have the right to "basic care," which is significantly lower than the aforementioned needs-based minimum benefit recognised refugees are entitled to. Asylum seekers are entitled to basic care immediately after lodging the asylum application until the final decision on their asylum application.
On its website, AIDA says the monthly amount an asylum seeker receives in basic care depends on the type of accommodation:
- In reception centers where catering is provided, asylum seekers receive €40 pocket money per month, while the care provider receives €21 maximum compensation for the costs per day.
- In reception centers where asylum seekers cook by themselves, they receive between €150 and 200 per month mainly in cash. Alternatively, as is practice in Tyrol, they receive €215 for subsistence (which equals the amount given for subsistence to those living in private flats).
- Asylum seekers in private rented accommodation receive €365 in cash. The benefits are lower in Carinthia, (€290 - 110 for the flat and €180 for subsistence) for a single adult to cover daily expenses. The allowance for a child is set at €80 per month.
According to AIDA, all asylum seekers receive an additional €150 per year for clothes in vouchers, and pupils get €200 a year for school material, mainly as vouchers.
By the end of 2018, 43,140 asylum seekers and beneficiaries of international protection received basic care. In Austria, an income beyond 1.5 times the amount of basic care benefits is deemed to be without need of basic care.
With material from dpa