Austria to cut benefits for immigrants with poor language skills

Foreigners who have moved to Austria but have not yet picked up the language are set to be hit by a controversial reform to the country’s social welfare system, as the Right-wing government steps up its efforts to deter immigration.

The plan presented by the Austrian government last week will penalise the unemployed by cutting €300 off their monthly dole payments if they do not fulfill certain language requirements. The government says that the money will instead go towards providing compulsory German classes.

Drawn up by the far-Right Freedom Party (FPÖ), the reforms would target immigrants and ethnic minorities in several ways. Foreseen is a sizeable cut in welfare payments to families with more than two children – a measure likely to particularly affect migrant families. Local authorities will also be compelled to tell the government how many welfare recipients in their region are from ethnic minorities.

Austria’s Right-wing government made reducing the number of immigrants in its welfare system a cornerstone of its policy pledges when it came to power a year ago. However previous attempts at legislation have fallen foul of EU law which requires EU citizens to be treated equally to citizens of the member state.

Vienna believes the new legislation will be given the green light by the European Court of Justice, as it also applies to Austrian citizens, even if they are far less likely to be affected.

"Reform of the unemployment benefit system is urgently required because we have massive immigration into the system,” Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said. “Since 2012, the number of recipients has roughly doubled.”

The government justified its overhaul by claiming that 60 per cent of recipients of social welfare are from ethnic minorities. But Austria’s own statistics office has disputed the claim, saying information on a welfare recipient’s ethnic background is not collected.

The reform to the welfare system also entails a centralisation of power of welfare payments, which have previously been set at the state level. Several Social Democrat governed states reacted angrily to the proposals.

Peter Hacker, a member of the Vienna city council for the Social Democrats, told Krone newspaper that the legislation would “drive 33,000 children in Vienna into poverty.” He further called the rule on collecting information on ethnic minorities “outrageous.”

This is just the latest measure by the Austrian government which aggressively targets ethnic minorities. In November it was revealed that they are considering stripping thousands of people of Turkish heritage of their nationality on the unclear grounds that they have secretly held onto dual nationality.

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