A government directive barring some asylum seekers from access to federal benefits and housing has provoked sparring among Austria's political parties, and prompted refugee aid agencies to charge that the new measure could leave hundreds homeless.
Minister of the Interior Ernst Strasser issued the directive, which took effect on October 1, excluding asylum seekers from certain countries from the federal care program that previously provided accommodation, food assistance, and health insurance. Strasser, a Conservative Party member, called the new measure necessary to cope with increasing numbers of asylum seekers. The exact number of excluded asylum seekers is unknown as there is no central collection of data, but an official from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) estimated that hundreds of asylum seekers were affected.
In 2001, a total of 30,135 asylum applications were filed with Austrian authorities. As of October 2002, however, the corresponding figure had already reached 28,727 and was expected to exceed the previous year's number. Moreover, contrary to the overall European trend, Austria's number of asylum seekers increased during the first half of 2002.
According to the UNHCR, the total number of asylum seekers in Europe declined by 12 percent in the first half of 2002 compared to the second half of 2001, but grew by 13 percent in Austria in the same period. With the exception of Switzerland (where the number of asylum applications grew by three percent), all of the countries bordering Austria recorded a decline in numbers.
Strasser told reporters in October that Austria could not become "the number one place of refuge for those who leave their home countries" for what he called "economic reasons." Many political commentators, however, characterized Strasser's stance as a strategy to gain votes from the right wing in parliamentary elections scheduled for November 24.
This strategy may have contributed to the strong showing of the Conservatives in the elections. The Freedom Party, the main loser, saw its total dip to 10 percent from the previous election's 27 percent.
Representatives of the opposition Social Democrat and Green parties, which together won about 46 percent of the vote in the November elections, have sharply criticized the directive. Green Party member Terezija Stoisits accused Strasser of undertaking an election campaign at the expense of foreigners. For his part, Social Democrat Caspar Einem said that Strasser's policy marked the minister's departure from the "soil of humanity."
Meanwhile, refugee aid organizations have publicly lamented their limited capacity to respond to the benefits cut-off, and asserted that many asylum seekers consequently run the risk of becoming homeless.
The new measures have already hit a snag in the form of opposition from the judiciary branch. At the end of October, a district court declared that an asylum seeker from Azerbaijan had a right to federal benefits, despite his and his family's ineligibility under the directive's provisions. A spokesperson for the ministry of the interior announced that the ministry would file an appeal and called the decision by the court a "legal error."
The minister's directive distinguishes between "absolute" and "relative" causes for exclusion from the federal care program. An absolute cause for exclusion is being a citizen of a member country of the European Economic Area, or of one of the European Union candidate countries. The absolute exclusion rule also applies to asylum seekers with Armenian, Azerbaijani, Georgian, Yugoslavian, Macedonian, Nigerian, or Turkish citizenship whose claim was rejected in their first hearing.
These people are excluded because the ministry assesses that asylum applications from people from these countries are almost certain to be rejected. This is not the case, for example, with Kurds from Turkey and Serbs from Kosovo, who are exempt from this rule because they are much more likely to be fleeing conflicts and therefore meet asylum requirements. Since October, excluded asylum seekers engaged in appellate proceedings have not received any federal benefits.
Asylum seekers excluded for an "absolute" cause are eligible for exceptional and temporary access to the federal care program only if they are "particularly needy because of their physical condition."
The "relative" cause for exclusion applies to citizens of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Yugoslavia, Albania, Armenia, Georgia, and Russia. These countries are singled out because ministry officials believe their applications have almost no chance of success. Because of their frequently dire situations, Chechens from Russia, Serbs from Kosovo, and Kurds from Turkey are exempt.
Asylum seekers excluded for a "relative" cause can access the federal care program only if this is "necessary to guarantee an efficient asylum proceeding," or if the asylum seeker is underage and therefore "especially in need of protection."