E.g., 09/25/2023
E.g., 09/25/2023
Austria: A Country of Immigration?

Austria: A Country of Immigration?

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Dotted with Czech, Slovak, Hungarian, and Polish family names, Vienna's telephone directory is a testimony to immigration's impact on Austria. Even more indicative of the longstanding presence of immigrants in the country is the fact that most educated Austrians find such names to be unremarkable.

Along with this history of immigration, research bears out the impression that Austria's population has become even more diverse in recent years. According to the 2001 census, of Austria's roughly eight million inhabitants, more than 730,000 (or 9.1 percent) were foreign residents, with 62.8 percent of them coming from the successor states of the former Yugoslavia and from Turkey. Between 1985 and 2001, over 254,000 foreigners were naturalized. Austria's proportion of foreign-born residents in 2001 was even higher than that of the United States, reaching a level of 12.5 percent.


However, the official line remains that Austria is not a traditional country of immigration, and recent immigration policies reflect that ambivalence. Traditional labor migration and family reunification programs have been severely curtailed in the wake of widespread public discontent over levels of immigration in the early 1990s. Since then, new integration measures have been introduced, the country's accession to the European Union (EU) has brought more open borders, and thousands of temporary seasonal workers have been admitted. How these conflicting policies are to be reconciled remains an unanswered question.

Historical Patterns of Migration

Over the last two centuries, Austria has participated in various forms of international migration, including immigration, emigration, and transit migration. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, when the territory of today's Republic of Austria made up only about one-tenth of the Habsburg empire, migration was driven by that period's new forces of social change: industrialization, proletarization, and urbanization.

Within the empire, migration flowed from east to west, with immigrants settling primarily in the primary urban and industrial centers. However, people's "residency right" was tied to their municipality of birth, which was obliged to take care of jobless or poverty-stricken citizens. The municipalities, in turn, could expel "alien residents" (i.e., those without a residency right in their municipality of residence) considered a burden. Far from preventing or even limiting internal migration, the restrictions on domestic movement led to a paradoxical situation: in the industrial heartland of the monarchy, but also in the more agrarian regions, an increasing proportion of residents were legally "strangers" characterized by extreme status insecurity. At the turn of the century, 60 percent of the Viennese population and a staggering 80 percent of Prague's population were thus considered "strangers." Not unlike modern aliens legislation, migration policies in the Habsburg monarchy were more important in terms of their effects on migrants' status than in regulating entry and residence in a given residential area.

In addition to these internal population movements, the monarchy was an important country of emigrants bound mainly for Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and increasingly, the Americas. Within the republic's territory, however, immigration outstripped emigration, partly due to the demographic weight of Vienna and its surroundings, but also due to the fact that the areas within the republic's boundaries were less important as sending regions of migrants.

World War I led to the disappearance of the Habsburg empire, the establishment of a number of new nation-states in Europe, and a reshuffling of large numbers of people as these new states strove to become more ethnically homogeneous. Austria repatriated the majority of the 310,000 officially registered "non-German" refugees, who had fled the empire's northeastern regions during World War I and then found themselves stranded within the borders of the newly created republic.

There was considerable emigration between the two world wars, initially because of the generally depressed economic situation (Austria never really recovered in this period from losing access to its traditional trading partners of Hungary and Czechoslovakia), and later for political reasons under Austria's repressive "Austro-fascist" regime. Between 1919 and 1937 alone, more than 80,000 Austrians left for overseas destinations (emigration to other destinations was not recorded). Meanwhile, a fair number of people emigrated to Palestine (in the case of Jews), the Soviet Union (Social Democrats and communists), and Germany (among these, many Nazi supporters).

With the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany in 1938, the regulations on immigration, residence, employment, and emigration of both nationals and non-nationals were subsequently replaced by relevant German legislation that continued to be in force long after the destruction of the Nazi regime. From the very start, the Nazi authorities imposed severe restrictions on Jews in virtually every area, including employment, social benefits, housing, and acquisition of property. This was accompanied by "spontaneous" and state-organized expropriation of property known as "Arisierung" or "aryanization." Between 1938 and 1941, some 128,000 Jews were forced to leave Austria, while up to 1945 at least 64,459 Austrian Jews were murdered both inside and outside death camps.

At the end of World War II, some 1.4 million foreigners, including foreign workers, slave laborers, POWs, war refugees, and ethnic Germans from all over Eastern Europe found themselves in Austrian territory. While civilian foreigners and prisoners of war were quickly repatriated to their respective countries of origin, more than 500,000 displaced persons permanently settled in Austria, the majority of them ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe.

Transit Migration

Due to its geopolitical position during the Cold War, Austria was one of the main receiving and transit countries for refugees fleeing communist regimes in Eastern and Central Europe between 1945 and 1989. About two million people found temporary shelter in Austria in this period. Although the majority of them traveled on to other Western states, many were granted asylum and subsequently integrated into Austrian society. There were several more-or-less continuous transit migration streams in this period, as in the case of Eastern Europeans (see below) fleeing for political reasons, and some 250,000 Jews who passed through Austria between 1973 and 1989 on their way from the USSR to Israel and the U.S.

There were three major inflows resulting from political crises in the communist countries. In 1956, as a result of the political uprising and ensuing repression in Hungary, over 180,000 refugees from that country entered Austria. While the large majority of these people were quickly resettled in other Western countries, about 20,000 were granted asylum and stayed in Austria. In the aftermath of the "Prague Spring" of 1968, about 162,000 Czechoslovakians entered Austria, with the majority later traveling on to other Western states. Finally, the crushing of the Solidarity movement in Poland in 1981 and 1982 triggered an inflow of about 150,000 Poles. Of 34,500 asylum applications received in 1981, 29,100 were submitted by Poles. In total, about 20,000 applications were approved in 1981 and 1982, a majority of them probably submitted by Poles. However, the reception of Polish refugees was less generous than that of either Hungarians or Czechoslovakian citizens during the two earlier crises; a visa requirement for Poles was quickly introduced in 1981, sharply reducing the number of asylum applications they submitted.

Labor Migration

Austria's post-World War II economic boom led to a growing demand for labor and an important shift in immigration policy. As Germany and Switzerland had already done in the 1950s, Austria began to forge bilateral agreements with southern and southeastern European states in the 1960s. These pacts were designed to recruit temporary workers. Agreements with Turkey (1964) and Yugoslavia (1966) were quickly followed by the establishment of recruitment offices in these countries, and over time led to the settlement of significant numbers of these workers and their families in Austria. In 1969, the number of foreign workers from Turkey and Yugoslavia stood at 76,500. By 1973, numbers had almost tripled to 227,000 - 178,000 of whom came from Yugoslavia and 27,000 from Turkey.

The oil crisis and ensuing recession in 1973 radically reduced the demand for guest workers, a phenomenon repeated after the second oil shock in 1981. As a response to the recession in the early 1970s, recruitment was ended, the access of foreigners to employment restricted, and a new law - the Aliens Employment Act - passed in 1975. This law remains one of the primary control mechanisms of foreign employment. As a consequence, the numbers of foreign employees (and residents) dropped to a point where, by 1985, the employment of Yugoslav and Turkish citizens in Austria was half the level of 1973. When the economy recovered, many former migrants from Yugoslavia returned. While active labor recruitment was stopped, other forms of migration - family reunification, spontaneous labor migration and, by the late 1980s, clandestine migration and asylum - became more important. However, labor migration initiated in the 1960s clearly had lasting effects on both the current composition of the foreign resident population in Austria and subsequent migration inflows. In 2001, 62.8 percent of the total foreign resident population came from the two recruitment regions, the former Yugoslavia and Turkey.

Challenges and Changes in the 1990s

As Austria entered the 1990s, profound political and economic changes were transforming Europe. The fall of the Iron Curtain triggered widespread fears of massive migration flows from Eastern Europe, and the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia sparked massive inflows of refugees from areas to Austria's southeast. These flows came in addition to a rapidly rising number of asylum seekers.

An economic boom in the late 1980s had created renewed labor shortages in the construction and export-oriented industries. Employers had filled these slots from their traditional sources of labor from southeastern Europe. They relied on informal channels of recruitment and, more importantly, the large supply of labor from Yugoslavia, which was in turn due to the profound economic crisis affecting that country in the late 1980s. The political crisis in the disintegrating Yugoslavia after 1990 and the beginning of the war in 1992 again increased the number of Yugoslavs residing in Austria. Also, there are strong indications that immigrants and their family members already present in Austria and formerly excluded from employment managed to gain access to jobs as a result of the boom. For some, this access also stemmed from a regularization of the employment status (so far, a unique step by Austria's policy makers) of hitherto illegally employed foreigners in 1990. The employment status of 29,100 persons was regularized in that process. As a result of the rising numbers of Yugoslavs and a fair number of Eastern Europeans that entered the country in this period, the number of non-nationals in Austria doubled, from 344,000 in 1988 to 690,000 in 1993, while the share of foreign workers of all employed people rose from 5.4 percent to 9.1 percent.

In response to these developments and, not least, to the growth of the Freedom Party (FPÖ), which called for "zero immigration," the government initiated a series of legislative reforms. These covered all areas related to immigration, including entry, residence, employment, and asylum. In 1990, a quota for the employment of foreigners was introduced, defined as a maximum share of foreign workers in the total workforce. The quota was initially set at 10 percent and was lowered to nine percent after Austria's accession to the European Economic Area (EEA) in 1994, which in turn led to the exemption of immigrants from the EU/EEA from most immigration controls.

In 1992, a new Aliens Act tightened up regulations on the entry and residence of foreigners. A second law introduced in 1993, the Residence Act, established contingents for different categories of migrants. In contrast to the quota used for the issuing of work permits, the contingents for residence permits defined the absolute number of permits that would be issued in any single year.

By the mid-1990s, still another round of immigration legislation reforms was under way, resulting in the passage of the 1997 Aliens Act. The act merged the 1992 Aliens Act and the 1993 Residence Act into a single law. The stated aim of the reform was to promote the integration of aliens already present in Austria, in the place of new immigration. This concept was called "integration before immigration," and the law became known as the "integration package."

The most important factor introduced by the law was the principle of "successive" consolidation of residence in increments of five, eight, and 10 years. An immigrant with fully "consolidated residence," that is, an immigrant continuously residing in Austria for 10 years, would have a legal status (except in terms of political rights) very similar to that of an Austrian citizen. Only convictions for major criminal offences would allow the state to take away the residence right of such a migrant. At the same time, new restrictions were imposed. This was particularly true regarding the employment rights of migrants who had arrived as family members, making them subject to a waiting period of eight years of continuous residence, later lowered to four years, at which point access to employment would be granted.

Finally, a new Naturalization Act was passed in 1998 that retained the core elements of the previous regulations. These include the principle of jus sanguinis and a regular waiting period of 10 years for naturalization. The new law shifted the burden of proof to the individual immigrant, who now has to show that he or she is sufficiently integrated into Austrian society. Most importantly, the migrant has to prove that she or he is economically self-sufficient, that is, not in need of social assistance, and sufficiently proficient in German. Also, even minor criminal offenses now constitute reasons for denial of citizenship.

A migrant may now acquire citizenship after a period of 15 years on grounds of good integration. Still, in the majority of cases, Austrian citizenship is awarded on a discretionary basis, possible after 10 years of continuous residence. Since 1998, largely due to demographic reasons (most migrants who entered Austria in the period of high immigration between 1988 and 1993 are now eligible for citizenship on a discretionary basis), the number of naturalizations has continued to increase from 17,786 in 1998 to 31,731 in 2001.

Asylum and Temporary Protection

Austria's role as both a transit country and country of asylum for refugees from communist countries drew to a close by the middle of 1980s. With the opening of the eastern borders and the freer legal movement of people, the number of asylum seekers, however, increased considerably (on average 20,800 applications per year between 1988 and 1992). The majority of applicants then came from Eastern Europe (Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and Romania), Yugoslavia (from 1990 onwards), and Turkey. Other countries (e.g. Iran, Bangladesh, and Pakistan) have become increasingly important as countries of origin.

In response to soaring numbers of asylum seekers (the so-called "asylum crisis"), the government initiated a series of reforms, introducing more restrictive regulation in a number of respects, mainly to expedite adjudication procedures and reduce the number of unfounded asylum applications. In 1991, the new Law on the Reception of Asylum Seekers cut the amount of state benefits for individual asylum seekers, aiming to ensure their provision in the form of goods and services wherever possible. In 1992, the new Asylum Act, passed in 1991, took force, introducing the principles of "safe third countries" and "safe country of origin." Additional measures included the introduction of visa requirements for certain countries (most importantly, for Romania) and the imposition of sanctions on companies caught transporting undocumented migrants.

As a consequence, the number of asylum applications dropped steeply to only 4,744 in 1993, and remained below 7,000 for the next four years. In 1997, a revision of the Asylum Act abolished the heavily criticized "safe country of origin" principle and provided for the inclusion of the Schengen agreement (aimed at creating a border-free arrangement among several EU states) and the harmonization of the Austrian asylum law with the 1990 EU Dublin Convention (which outlines common formal arrangements on asylum, stating that when people have been refused asylum in one member state, they may not seek asylum in another). Further steps toward the EU-wide harmonization of migration and asylum policies became necessary with the entry into force of the Amsterdam Treaty in May 1999 which provided, among other things, for minimum standards for both the reception of asylum seekers and asylum procedures, minimum standards for persons granted temporary protection and, finally (albeit not relevant for national legislation), a system of burden-sharing among member states.

Secondly, the presidency conclusions of the EU Summit in October 1999 in Tampere on immigration and asylum called for a further harmonization of asylum policies, eventually leading to a more or less uniform asylum system, both in respect to reception conditions and asylum procedures. In response to the Tampere meeting, the commission tabled a proposal for a European temporary protection scheme in case of mass influx of refugees in early 2000, and another defining minimum standards for the granting and withdrawing of refugee status some months later. It should be noted that the Amsterdam treaty and the Tampere summit conclusions also target other areas of migration policy that may have a major impact on national aliens legislation in the future - if approved by the member states.

Towards the end of the 1990s, the number of new asylum applicants - increasingly from Asian and African countries - rose once again. In 2002, a record number of 36,990 asylum applications were lodged, exceeding the already high figures for 2001 by almost 7,000 (not counting the 16,150 applications submitted to the Austrian embassy in Islamabad in late 2001). Partly as a response, an internal order of the Ministry of the Interior issued in the fall of 2002 aimed to further restrict access to state benefits by persons whose applications are deemed unlikely to be approved by the relevant authorities. The subsequent repatriation of 42 Kosovo Albanians at the beginning of October 2002 and the simultaneous exclusion of Kosovars and asylum seekers from several other countries from federal care stirred a sharp debate on the Austrian reception system for asylum seekers.

In contrast to the increasingly restrictive regulations for individual asylum applicants, Austria opened the door to thousands of war refugees from the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s. Like other European states, Austria did so by instituting a special legal basis for the admission and residence of conflict refugees outside the normal asylum procedures called "temporary protected status" (TPS).

Between 1992 and 1995, a total of about 95,000 war refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina found shelter in Austria. Most were granted TPS and received official assistance. Due to an active government integration program, by July 1999 about 70,000 Bosnians had been provided with long-term residence permits and many had been absorbed by the Austrian labor market. Only about 10,000 people voluntarily returned to Bosnia-Herzegovina, while some 10,000 moved on to other countries.

The escalation of the conflict in Kosovo in 1998, followed by the NATO air strikes in early 1999, led to a mass displacement of Kosovars to neighboring countries (450,000 to Albania and 240,000 to Macedonia). While European states were of the opinion that protection should be provided within the region as much as possible to avoid large refugee streams to Western Europe, the fragile political situation in Macedonia led to the decision to evacuate thousands of refugees from camps located in the country. In the spring of 1999, Austria received 5,000 refugees from Macedonia and immediately granted them TPS. In addition, 6,000 Kosovars held other residence titles mostly in connection with regular asylum procedures.

Recent Policy Developments

The formation of a coalition government in January 2000 between the People's Party (ÖVP) and the Freedom Party (FPÖ) brought a major political earthquake to Austria, with repercussions felt all over Europe. "Schwarz-Blau," as it was called after the coalition parties' colors, finally was inaugurated in early February. This was seen as a major break with the past, as well as a break with the consensus among mainstream politicians that a coalition with the right-wing FPÖ was out of question.

The government drew intense criticism, both inside and outside the country, leading to the imposition of (largely symbolic) sanctions against the government by the leaders of the other EU member states. On the other hand, the sanctions clearly had a negative effect, distracting from actual government policies in a number of important areas (e.g., social insurance administration, budget, fees, taxes) and rallying "the nation" against the alleged "onslaught on Austria." The sanctions also accelerated the reaching of an agreement providing for the compensation of World War II slave laborers (mostly Eastern Europeans), as well as the restitution of expropriated property. They also led to the resignation of the FPÖ's charismatic leader, Jorge Häider, as party chairman, and heightened scrutiny of the government's performance with respect to human rights and policies in regard to minorities and immigrants. From the beginning, however, it was clear that the FPÖ would try to reform aliens legislation, as immigration policy has long been one of its central campaign issues. Finally, in July 2002, Parliament adopted major amendments to the Aliens Act and the Asylum Law.

In general, the reforms follow the line of earlier legislation, but introduce new regulations in three important areas. First, labor immigration has been restricted mainly to key personnel, with a minimum wage requirement of around 2,000 per month for prospective migrants. Second, and in stark contrast to the first category of migrants, the employment of seasonal workers will be greatly facilitated by allowing such laborers in areas outside agriculture and tourism and extending the employment period to up to one year. Critics have argued that the new regulation may initiate a new guest worker regime, with thousands of foreign workers coming into Austria - even if interrupted by short periods of absence - for whom all legal paths to consolidate residency are closed. Third, all new immigrants from non-EU third countries (plus those who have been living in Austria since 1998) are required to attend "integration courses" consisting mainly of language instruction and an introduction to fundamental legal, historical, and political aspects of Austria. Non-participation will lead to sanctions, both financial and legal, e.g., the denial of more secure residence titles. The ultimate fate of non-compliant foreigners could be expulsion from Austria.

In October 2002, the coalition government of the ÖVP and the FPÖ was dissolved. New elections for the national assembly were held at the end of November 2002, resulting in a resounding victory for the conservative ÖVP (42 percent of the vote, up 15 percent from the previous election). The right-wing FPÖ, meanwhile, lost almost two-thirds of its electorate and was reduced to 10 percent of the vote.

After long negotiations with all the other parties in Parliament, the ÖVP formed another coalition government with the FPÖ in February 2003. There is little doubt that the principle of "integration before immigration" will be endorsed by the new government. To date it is still unclear to what extent government integration policies will rely on compulsory mechanisms as opposed to incentives.

Although the 2002 Aliens Act is already in force, no "integration courses" are offered yet, making it impossible to judge their impact. Moreover, it remains to be seen how other major obstacles to integration in the labor market, in housing, or in education will be tackled.

Looking Ahead

Austria's recent immigration policy has been characterized, first and foremost, by ambivalence, a mood manifested in measures that both welcome and restrict immigration.

On the one hand, the growing discontent of large parts of the population with the exceptionally high levels of immigration during the first part of the 1990s was met with policy proposals of "zero immigration." Consequently, traditional labor migration and family reunification programs were severely curtailed. At the same time, new measures were introduced that should ensure better integration of foreigners in Austria. For example, family members of migrants were exempted from quota requirements by the Aliens Act 1997. This has led to a large backlog of applications for family reunification dating back to the period prior to 1998, an issue stemming from the entry restrictions of earlier legislation. In contrast, immigrants who arrived after 1998 are freely allowed to bring in their family members. The introduction of the principle of consolidation of residence by the same law, meanwhile, clearly reduced status insecurity of migrants and enhanced their integration. Another positive, albeit limited, step taken by the outgoing government was the reduction of the waiting period for family members of migrants to gain access to the labor market.

On the other hand, the outgoing government greatly facilitated the recruitment and employment of seasonal labor outside the industries in which they were traditionally employed. In addition, the government allowed individual Bundesländer (federal states) to conclude treaties with neighboring countries under which they can determine the number of "commuting" foreigners and an additional number of key personnel (outside the national quota) from these countries.

How these conflicting policies are to be reconciled remains to be seen. The history of the Austrian "guest-worker regime" demonstrates that temporary migration has a tendency to become permanent and has long-term implications for the size and composition of the country's immigrant population.

The official line continues to be that Austria is not a traditional country of immigration, and recent immigration policies reflect that ambivalence. One the one hand, there is the curtailment of traditional labor migration and family reunification programs that followed public discontent over immigration in the early 1990s. Added to the mix since that time are new integration measures, the country's accession to the EU and its regime of more open borders, and the admission of thousands of temporary seasonal workers. Looking ahead, immigration appears likely to continue to capture the attention of both the public and policy makers for many decades to come.

The present article is largely based on the following comprehensive study on migration in Austria:

Kraler, Albert and Stacher, Irene. 2002. "Migration Dynamics in Austria: Patterns and Policies in the 19th and 20th century" in: " Historische Sozialkunde.Geschichte-Fachdidaktik-Politische Bildung", Special Issue 2002, International Migration (in English), pp.51-65.

The views expressed in this article represent those of the authors and not those of ICMPD as a Vienna-based intergovernmental organization or of its member states.


Austrian Forum for Migration Studies (OeFM). Statistics on Austria's foreign population as well as links to other migration-related institutions. http://www.oefm.org/findit.html

Bauboeck, Rainer. 1999. "Immigration Control without Integration Policy: An Austrian Dilemma", in: Grete Brochmann, Tomas Hammar (eds.), "Mechanisms of Immigration Control. A Comparative Analysis of European Regulation Policies," Oxford, New York: Berg.

Heiss, Gernot and Rathkolb, Oliver (eds.). "Asylland wider Willen. Flüchtlinge in Österreich im europaeischen Kontext seit 1914" (Country of Asylum against Will. Refugees in Austria in the European Context since 1914), Vienna: J&V, Edition Wien, Dachs Verlag, pp. 122-139.

Fassmann, Heinz and Muenz, Rainer. 1995. Einwanderungsland Oesterreich- Historische Migrationsmuster, aktuelle Trends und politische Massnahmen" (Immigration Country Austria- Historical migration patterns, current trends and political measures), Vienna: Jugend & Volk

Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development Continuous Reporting System on Migration (SOPEMI). Trends in International Migration (various editions). Paris: OECD Publications.