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Migration and migration politics in Austria | Migration weltweit: Daten - Geschichte - Politik | bpb.de

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Migration and migration politics in Austria

Leila Hadj Abdou

/ 9 Minuten zu lesen

Migration is an important factor in the demographic makeup of Austria’s population and, since the 1990s, it has been a salient issue in the political arena.

Brunnenmarkt in the Brunnengasse in Vienna, Austria. (© picture-alliance, Rainer Hackenberg)

Migration in Austria

‘In Vienna, you always felt you were breathing cosmopolitan air, and were not imprisoned by one single language, race, nation, or idea.’ With this description, the exiled writer Stefan Zweig remembered the multicultural profile of the capital of the Habsburg Empire in his autobiographic novel ‘The world of yesterday’.

If one thinks of Austria, one might think of Sacher torte, Mozart and other famous musical composers, the Alps and their (with climate change, slowly disappearing) ski slopes, or the country’s role in the Third Reich (the full scope of which has been for long omitted by its political elites). It is not necessarily international immigration that first springs to mind. However, Austria has been characterised throughout much of its history by international migration, mobility and ethno-cultural diversity.

Today about 180 different nationalities live in the country’s capital; close to half of the city’s residents – 44.4 percent – are of foreign origin (i.e. Austrian nationals born abroad and foreign nationals). In four of Vienna’s 23 districts, the share of inhabitants of foreign origin is more than half. When it comes to its migrant population, the country’s capital is hence comparable to metropolises like New York City or London. Migration is also prevalent in other parts of the country. For instance, in the city of Salzburg, the capital of the western province of Salzburg, 34 percent of schoolchildren speak another language than German as their first language.

Migration is undoubtedly an important factor in the country’s demographic makeup, and without migration, the country’s population would shrink massively in the years and decades to come. It is predicted, that the country will reach ten million residents in the mid-2050s, with future population growth based exclusively on immigration, as the annual number of births has already fallen below the number of deaths since 2020 (so-called birth deficit) due to declining birth rates and an ageing population. With a share of migrants (share relative to the size of the resident population) of 13.2 percent, Austria ranks in the upper third among European Union Member States. In relation to its entire population, Austria hence receives more immigrants than other European states typically associated with large-scale immigration such as Germany or France. Immigrants come to Austria for a variety of reasons, including to seek refuge, to work, and to join family members.

Migration is a key issue in Austria’s domestic and international politics. It has been politicised in Austria since the late 1980s, long before this was the case in many other European Union (EU) countries, serving as a prominent issue in the nation’s electoral politics. Along with other EU member states such as Germany, Austria has taken an active role with regard to the development of immigration control policies at the EU level, since the EU gained competence on these matters.

History of immigration

Driven by industrialisation and urbanisation in the 19th century, internal population movement was a key characteristic of Austria’s predecessor polity, the Habsburg Empire. At that time, Vienna was a multicultural melting pot, as noted by Stefan Zweig above. At the same time, the Empire was an important source of emigration. Whilst emigration had previously been strictly regulated (and before 1832 even forbidden), in 1876, the new constitution granted the right to emigrate. Between 1876 and 1910, nearly ten percent of the Habsburg Empire’s population migrated internationally. After the fall of the Empire, the Austrian Republic was founded in 1918. This republic, like many of its newly established neighbouring states, was largely based on the idea of an ethnically homogenous nation.

Between the two World Wars, economic depression and political turmoil led to further emigration. In the wake of the annexation of the country by Nazi Germany in 1938, between 1938 and 1941, some 128,000 Jews fled Austria, while up to 1945 at least 64,459 Austrian Jews were killed.

After the end of World War II, Austria did not become an independent sovereign state until 1955. Because of its geographic location at the border with the Eastern Bloc, the country saw the arrival of refugees from communist countries. For instance, people fled to Austria from Hungary following the 1956 national uprising, from then Czechoslovakia during the 1968 ‘Prague Spring’, and from Poland in 1981, when the then Polish government declared the country to be under martial law. In total, two million refugees entered Austria between 1945 and 1989. While the majority of these refugees only stayed temporarily and moved farther west, some remained permanently in Austria.

The gradual transformation of the country into the immigration nation it is today eventually started in in the 1960s, when the Austrian government decided to recruit a significant number of labour migrants from Turkey and then Yugoslavia on the basis of bilateral agreements. In 1963, the number of foreign employees stood at 21,500; by 1973, one decade later, this number had risen to nearly 227,000, more than a ten-fold increase in foreign employment. Many of these so-called ‘guest workers’ were initially circular migrants.

The 1973 oil crisis and the in light of a stagnant economy subsequent decision to stop the recruitment of foreign labour changed this dynamic. Stricter immigration controls, which were intended to halt new immigration to Austria, led to permanent immigration. Instead of moving back and forth between Austria and their countries of origin, a significant number of labour migrants decided to stay, in order to avoid not being allowed to return to Austria. Subsequently, family reunification became a main source of immigration.

The end of the Cold War led to a further influx of migrants. In the 1990s, civil wars in the successor countries of Yugoslavia became another main driver of immigration to Austria. Between 1992 and 1995, Austria received 86,500 Bosnian refugees, 1.1 percent of its population. At the time, Austria had one of the most generous reception systems in place, initially providing a temporary protection scheme and then granting Bosnian nationals unlimited access to the Austrian labour market from 1995 onwards.

With Austria’s accession to the EU in 1995, immigration from EU member states increased. Since the mid-2000s, EU countries have been the main source of immigration. Since 2006 citizens of neighbouring Germany have represented the largest immigrant group in Austria. As of 2023 (1 January), 225,012 German nationals resided in Austria.

In 2015, the year of Europe’s so-called ‘migration crisis’, 88,098 people sought asylum in Austria, the third-highest per capita rate in the EU that year. Together with Germany and Sweden, Austria was the main receiving country of asylum applications in the EU. Humanitarian migration has been among the most important types of migration to Austria in recent years. While the number of asylum seekers dropped again after a spike in 2015, it surpassed this peak in 2022, when the country received 112,272 asylum applications, putting Austria fourth in terms of total numbers of applications received in the EU that year. In addition, as of July 2023, the country had also admitted more than 100,000 Ukrainian refugees in the wake of the Russian war against Ukraine. This group has been granted temporary protection as part of an EU-wide policy.

Migrant population

In 2023 (as of 1 January), Austria counted a population of 9,104,772. Of these, 19 percent (1,729,820) were foreign nationals; 21,7 percent (1,975,860) were born abroad. If we add to this percentage the Austrian nationals that were born in Austria but both of whose parents were born abroad (i.e. the second generation), the share of the country’s population with a migration background rises to more than one-quarter (26,4 percent) of the entire population. In the country’s capital city of Vienna, the share of the population with a migration background amounts to half of the population. The migrant population of the country largely reflects the history of immigration described above. The main countries of origin are Germany, Romania, Serbia, and Turkey.

Migration policy & politics

From the 1960s until the late 1980s, migration policy in Austria was mainly driven by labour market needs; more liberal or more restrictive policy decisions were taken based on the country’s economic situation. However, the dynamics of migration policymaking in Austria changed in the aftermath of the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, becoming more restrictive. The collapse of the Iron Curtain led to more permeable borders in Europe and increasing immigration, including refugee arrivals. Immigration policies, as migration scholars Münz and Fassmann observed, were at that time motivated by an “unspoken desire for a new Iron Curtain”. Austria, indeed, was one of the first European countries to adopt an immigration policy based on a quota system, which restricted entries to an annual cap.

The migration issue also started to become heavily politicised by political parties in Austria. The then newly emerging Green Party and the rising radical-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), although in opposite ways, both used the issue of immigration to sharpen their profile and to mobilise potential voters from the late 1980s onwards. In response, the country’s two centre parties, the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) and the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ), have increasingly used the topic during electoral campaigns to attract voters, although the SPÖ has done so in a more reactive way.

Asylum and irregular migration in particular have been hotly debated issues. In line with an Externer Link: EU-wide trend, migrant admission and return policies have become more restrictive over time. Immigrant integration has been another key topic in public and political debates.

Compared to other countries, the naturalisation of foreign nationals in Austria is regulated in a restrictive way, including a ban on dual citizenship in most cases. As a result, the annual naturalisation rate (the share of people naturalised with residency in Austria, in relation to the entire foreign resident population) was 0.7 percent in 2022. Especially in areas with high shares of migrants, this impedes the quality of democracy, as Austrian citizenship is a legal precondition to vote. In Vienna, for instance, one-third of the voting-age population (from the age of 16 onwards) are not entitled to vote in national, regional, or municipal elections.

To sum up, migration is undoubtedly a key feature of historical and contemporary Austria. For several reasons, including demographic and economic, but also political, factors, it is highly likely to remain a prominent issue in the future.

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Leila Hadj Abdou, Ph.D., is Part-Time Assistant Professor at the Migration Policy Centre at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies of the European University Institute.

[Leila Hadj Abdou is currently also a policy officer at the Department of Integration and Diversity at the City of Vienna. This contribution was written in her capacity as academic staff member at the European University Institute.]