How They Do It

Austria: Collective Amnesia?

VIENNA, Austria—In the fall of 2007, Arigona Zogaj became such a well-known figure in Austria that people referred to the 15-year-old by her first name. Her prominence wasn’t due to a hit record or a modeling triumph—some of the more common reasons teenagers become famous. It was because she defied the Austrian government.

Instead of complying with a deportation order that would have sent the ethnic Albanian back to Kosovo, Arigona went into hiding. She subsequently appeared in a video that was broadcast on national television in which she threatened to commit suicide if she was forced out of the country she had called home for five years. The public rallied around the teenager, and eventually she was permitted to stay, albeit on a temporary basis: In December 2007, an Austrian court ruled that Arigona will have to leave the country when she finishes high school.

Arigona may have received outsized attention, but the hard-line approach the government brought to her case is not unusual. A little more than a year ago, I met a Chechen woman in Vienna whose 10-year-old son was forcibly removed from his elementary school by the police after the family’s asylum application was denied.

As you might infer from those examples, Austria has some of the toughest immigration laws in Europe. The country’s rules for entry are a Russian doll of quotas. The federal government caps the number of non-EU citizens who can move to Austria every year. (In 2006, the limit was 7,000 people—that figure included both skilled professionals and immigrants wishing to join family members already living in the country.) Then the nine provincial governments set limits on the number of foreigners who can live in their geographic regions.

Of course, because Austria is part of the European Union, most Western Europeans have the right to work and live there. However, residents of 12 countries that joined the European Union in 2004 and 2007 —including Poland, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, and Romania—have been barred from seeking employment in Austria. The Austrian and German governments were particularly insistent on the work curbs, and both countries announced they will maintain them for the maximum period allowed, until 2011.

The idea, of course, is to ensure that Eastern Europeans willing to work for lower wages will not flood the Austrian job market. There is also a law explicitly aimed at reserving jobs for Austrians: Foreign nationals (aside from most Western Europeans) cannot make up more than 9 percent of the country’s work force. That figure is a little lower than the proportion of foreigners in the country’s population: About 10 percent of Austria’s 8.2 million residents are citizens of another country. The majority hail from the former Yugoslavia and Turkey. (Often they are former “guest workers” or their descendants; Austria recruited workers from those regions in the 1960s and ‘70s.)

Perhaps because it is so difficult to settle in Austria as an immigrant, the country has attracted a lot of asylum seekers. To be sure, many of the petitioners legitimately faced persecution in their home country because of their race, religion, nationality, social group, or political opinion (the criterion they have to meet in order qualify as asylees). But the fact that outsiders are pretty much barred from entering Austria unless they are highly skilled workers or are related to someone already in the country creates incentives to embellish. Right now, Austria has a backlog of more than 30,000 asylum applications. When their stories fail to convince, authorities are strict about sending people packing, as the Zogaj case illustrates.

The policies may look unduly strict, even callous. But the fact that the government is tough on outsiders helps maintain support for a very generous social safety net. Austrians have access to free medical care, virtually free secondary education, and four months’ paid parental leave for each child. Those benefits are expensive, and, fairly or not, when recipients share an ethnic and cultural background, citizens are less likely to complain that their high taxes are bankrolling freeloaders.

Of course, sometimes countries open the door to immigrants in part to fund expensive public programs. An influx of foreigners can help even out the ratio of workers to retirees, which can reduce pressure to raise taxes or cut programs. But Austria hasn’t been under so much pressure to allow in more potential taxpayers, in part because a lot of Austrians who would have collected benefits died during World War II.

That period of Austria’s history—or, more precisely, how Austrians interpret it—affects the country’s approach to outsiders in a less tangible way. From 1938 to 1945, the country was part of the Third Reich. Hitler received a hero’s welcome when he marched triumphantly into Vienna, and many residents embraced his virulent anti-Semitism. Hitler was born in Austria, and compatriots from the land of his birth—such as Amon Göth (who was portrayed by Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List)—enthusiastically participated in the Holocaust. Nevertheless, in 1943, the Allies’ so-called Moscow Declaration described Austria as “the first free country to fall victim to Hitlerite aggression.” That wording was intended, in part, to assure Austrians they would be treated fairly after the war and to discourage them from holding out until the bitter end. Austrians seized on the “first victim” appellation after the war; successive governments avoided fully acknowledging the country’s Nazi past or compensating Austria’s Jewish victims.

In other countries, a sense of history has pushed governments to be more open to outsiders. For example, German politicians are, for the most part, careful to avoid publicly excoriating immigrants. Without Austria’s collective amnesia, the aggressive pursuit of unsuccessful asylum seekers might engender a sense of déjà vu. A more forthright appraisal of the recent past might also have checked the rise of right-wing politician Jörg Haider, who died in a car crash this weekend. In Germany, far-right leaders have not gained much traction, no doubt in part because German voters know all too well where that ideology can lead. Haider’s “Austria First!” slogan, in contrast, garnered enough support in the 1999 election to allow his party to join the ruling coalition government. Appalled EU member states slapped sanctions on Austria, which were lifted seven months later, in part because the rebuke was hardening pro-Haider sentiment. Elections held last month showed that Haider still found favor among many Austrian voters: The two far right parties captured 29 percent of the vote.

That outcome was chalked up in part to the parties’ strong anti-foreigner platform, a position that is becoming a vote-winner across the continent. In April 2008, Silvio Berlusconi reclaimed the prime ministership of Italy in part by advocating a crackdown on foreigners, and last year, anti-immigrant politicians scored victories in Switzerland and Denmark. Britain’s Conservative Party has also found that pushing for curbs on immigration scores high in opinion polls. Austria isn’t a cutting-edge place—you can still find royalists in Vienna, for example. But when it comes to dealing with immigrants, the Austrian blueprint may not be an outlier in Europe for much longer.