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Friday, 26 October, 2001, 14:56 GMT 15:56 UK
Citizenship classes: The Austrian way
Vienna
Austria's new 'integration contract' follows years of heated debate
As the UK considers plans to make new immigrants attend citizenship classes, the BBC's Bethany Bell looks at plans for a compulsory cultural programme for immigrants in Austria.

The Austrian Government - a coalition of the conservative People's Party and the far-right Freedom Party - is planning to make immigrants take compulsory German lessons and citizenship classes.

The measures, announced earlier this month, are to be applied not just to new immigrants but to foreigners already living in the country.

Bad German too often stands in the way of immigrants finding jobs

Peter Westenthaler, Freedom Party

Failure to attend the classes could in some cases lead to people's residence visas not being renewed.

Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel from the People's Party has hailed the move as "a model for other countries".

He said: "We offer foreigners [the right to come here] and in return we expect them to learn German and about this country."

'Integration'

The government's new 'integration contract' follows years of stormy debate in Austria over the question of immigration, frequently inflamed by the Freedom Party, formerly led by Joerg Haider

It has fought to stop new immigrants coming in until the current foreign population is, in its opinion, properly integrated.

But the new plans have drawn heavy criticism from the opposition and human rights groups.
David Blunkett, Home Secretary
Blunkett is said to be considering citizenship classes

They say the measures impose too many duties on immigrants and create an atmosphere of fear.

The parliamentary leader of the opposition Social Democrats, Heinz Fischer, says it is good for immigrants to learn German, but the classes should not be coupled with threats of losing residence permits.

He suggests they be linked to the right to vote in local elections.

'System abuse'

But the parliamentary leader of the Freedom Party, Peter Westenthaler, rejects the criticism, saying Austria has the right to set the rules on who has their visa extended or terminated.

He said: "Bad German too often stands in the way of immigrants finding jobs.

"These measures will stop abuse of social services, because those people who don't want to be integrated and start working will have to reckon with sanctions.

"We won't be thrown off course by the outcry from left-wing multicultural fanatics."

The measures are to be applied not just to new immigrants but for foreigners already living in this country.

That does not deter Mohammed, who works in Vienna's central market, the Naschmarkt.

He said: "It's a good idea, especially for people who don't already know German - and if the government pays for me I wouldn't mind going."

But there is a catch. Only half of the cost of lessons will be provided by the government.

Job gap

There has been some suggestion the rest be provided by city and town councils, but it is likely immigrants will have to shoulder some of the payment.

As well as the economic burden on existing immigrants, there is also a worry among some business leaders that the measures could put off highly qualified new immigrants in fields like IT, where the working language is often English.

Recent studies suggest Austrian firms need an additional 17,000 qualified workers next year alone.

The head of the opposition Green Party, Alexander van der Bellen, who is a professor of economics, says the government ignores this problem at its peril.

He says if potential new immigrants are faced with too many duties and too few rights they will simply take their talents to other countries instead.

See also:

26 Oct 01 | UK Politics
Immigrants 'to take citizen classes'
04 Sep 01 | UK
Aiming for England
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