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Monday, 29 April, 2002, 09:47 GMT 10:47 UK
Back to school: Austria's plans for foreigners
Immigrant children play in Vienna
Immigrants now make up 10% of Austria's population
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By Peter Biles
BBC World Affairs correspondent
line

In the shadow of Vienna's magnificent city hall, thousands of people gathered recently to enjoy a cultural festival, held to showcase the Austrian province of Styria.

Florence Pajunk
Florence Pajunk is very keen to learn German
In the spring sunshine, elderly couples whiled away the afternoon, dancing to traditional music; local woodcutters were hard at work, showing off their skills; an immaculate horse and carriage ferried visitors around the Rathaus.

All this however, offered visitors a glimpse of Austria's past, rather than the future.

Austria of the 21st Century is a country where immigrants now make up 10% of the population.

A short drive across the city, the crowded stalls of the Brunnen Market are very much a preserve of the foreigners who have come to Austria.

Here the atmosphere has become noticeably more anxious since Austria's coalition government was formed in February 2000.

The country's three-quarters of a million immigrants know they are now living in a climate where there are clear signs of a tougher government policy on immigration.


Among the immigrant population, there is a lot of fear and anger

Hans Stieb, People's Aid
Under controversial, and some say, radical integration plans that are expected to be brought before parliament this year, many immigrants will be forced to learn German and pay for some of the tuition themselves.

If they fail to do so, they could face fines or even deportation.

Back to school

The programme will apply to anyone arriving from outside the European Union, as well as those non-EU foreigners who have settled in Austria since 1998.

Tutuncu Huseyin
Huseyin: It's very hard for older immigrants to learn
Those concerned with the welfare of immigrants in Austria complain that there has been insufficient consultation.

"Among the immigrant population, there is a lot of fear and anger," says Heinz Stieb of People's Aid, Austria.

"People just don't know what's going to happen to them when this legislation reaches the National Assembly. They are just waiting and trying to campaign for a change."

The majority of Austria's foreigners come from Turkey and other parts of the Balkans, particularly the countries of the former Yugoslavia.

The integration programme has become a regular talking point in the Kent Kebabhaus, a Turkish restaurant, owned by Tutuncu Huseyin.

"It was hard for the first generation - the older 'guest workers' - to learn German," he says.

"The second generation know the language because they were educated in Austrian schools.

"But if you've over 40 when you come here, and you have to learn German, that of course is difficult."

'Incentive'

Austria has a high percentage of workers from outside the EU.

Immigrant mothers and their children
Those who fail to take classes face fines or deportation
The government says it wants to attract foreigners with specialist skills, and needs around 2,400 immigrants a year.

The intention though, is that the newcomers, poor and wealthy alike, should become more a part of mainstream Austrian society.

The Minister of Economic Affairs, Martin Bartenstein, doesn't believe the requirement to learn German will be a deterrent.

"We see families here, especially Turkish families, who don't speak a word of German after they've been living in the country for years.

"So to give incentives and a certain amount of obligation to learn a basic amount of German - around 100 hours - is very much in the interests of those people who want to come here and live with us," says Mr Bartenstein.

The critics of the integration agreement fear that it's the far-right Freedom Party, formerly led by Joerg Haider, which is the driving force behind the current proposals.

Mr Haider is renowned for his tough anti-immigration stance.

Martin Bartenstein, Minister of Economic Affairs
Bartenstein: It's in immigrants' interests to know German
However, the party's Secretary General, Peter Sichrovsky, rejects the idea that this new proposal smacks of xenophobia.

"If you look at immigration policy across Europe, there's no difference between left and right.

"I am very careful with words like xenophobia. They are clichés and don't say anything about the actual situation in different countries," he argues.

Sitting in a German language class in Vienna with eight other immigrants, Florence Pajunk from Nigeria knows she needs German and is desperately keen to learn.

She says she's confident of learning enough German in order to stay in Austria.

This is a widespread view among the immigrant population, although many foreigners nevertheless resent the fact that they will be forced to learn German if the integration programme becomes law.

They remain deeply suspicious of radical immigration policies that stem from the political right.

See also:

26 Apr 02 | Europe
Le Pen lashes immigrants
22 Mar 02 | Europe
Europe's skills headache
26 Oct 01 | UK Politics
Immigrants 'to take citizen classes'
19 Mar 02 | Europe
Destination: Europe
11 Jul 01 | Europe
Europe's immigration vision
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