Posted on October 4, 2017

Austria Puts the Squeeze on Refugees with Benefit Cuts

Shadia Nasralla, Reuters, October 4, 2017

Ahmed Ali, a 34-year-old teacher, fled the war in Syria two years ago and settled in a quiet Austrian town on the hilly border with the Czech Republic. He was hoping to raise a family there.

But voter attitudes towards immigrants have hardened due to concerns about security and the economy after Austria took in more than 1 percent of its population in asylum seekers in 2015.

This fueled support for the far-right party Freedom Party and its candidate came close to winning last year’s presidential election. Immigration is still the dominant political issue ahead of the Oct. 15 parliamentary election.

In January, lawmakers in Lower Austria, where Ali lived, reduced benefits for new arrivals. They said the benefits system needed protecting from being overstretched by the influx of refugees.

Ali and his pregnant wife moved again to Vienna in July, where their benefits would still be paid in full.

“Most of us fled when the letter came telling us our social benefits would be cut. At first we didn’t believe it but then we saw it on our bank balance,” said Ali, who says his German is not yet good enough to find work.

Three of Austria’s nine provinces — Lower Austria, Burgenland and Upper Austria — have reduced benefits for new arrivals. Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, leader of the conservative People’s Party which is leading in the polls, wants to make similar cuts apply to the whole country.

Chancellor Christian Kern, whose Social Democratic Party polls show competing with the Freedom Party for second place, has resisted the idea but said he could support them in cases where new arrivals turn down job offers.


A statement accompanying the Upper Austrian bill painted the cuts as a way to tackle the problem of “welfare magnetism” in the context of refugees. {snip}


The three provinces have cut benefits for new arrivals, even after obtaining asylum, to around 570 euros ($669) a month, less than half the poverty threshold of 1,200 euros, compared with around 850 euros for an Austrian who has never lived abroad.

Benefits for a household have been capped at 1,500 euros.

Rather than live off less than what is considered the bare minimum for most Austrians, many of those affected have moved, particularly to the capital.