Critics of language law in Austria crying foul
Jun. 1, 2003 12:00 AM
VIENNA - Critics of a new law that forces some immigrants to learn basic German
quickly or face possible expulsion are challenging the measure, saying it
reinforces the notion that Austria is hostile to outsiders.
Since Jan. 1, foreigners from outside the European Union have been required to
know some German under a law called the Integration Agreement.
Those deemed by immigration officials to speak insufficient German are sent to a
class and forced to pay at least half the fee.
Despite the name, the law has little to do with integration, argues Katarina
Echsel, a legal counselor at Peregrina, an organization that
supports female foreigners in Austria.
Instead, she contends it's a tool to tell certain people they're unwelcome.
Foreign professionals holding key positions are exempt, as are their families,
university students and some others.
"If it is about integration, why don't you then demand that they do it, too?"
Making language-learning mandatory "creates a negative image of migrants among
the public," said Ines Michalowski, a researcher at
Germany's University of Osnabrueck.
"It implies that they don't want to learn, when in reality, the majority wants
to take language classes," she said.
Peregrina and other groups offering cheap German classes have long waiting
Several other European countries, including the Netherlands and Denmark, require
immigrants to learn the local language, Michalowski
said. Only Austria links the requirement to residence permits.
Alexander Janda, director of the state-run Fund for Integration of Refugees in
charge of administrating the law, defends the measure.
The courses "include different models of everyday communication, such as what
you would need in banks and public transportation," he said.
The state contributes $215 to the course fee, with the cheapest classes costing
twice that. Failure to start classes within 18 months
reduces the subsidy; after two years, fines can be imposed.
"After four years, if there is no extension granted, a procedure to end the
residence permit starts," Janda said.
Not all foreigners bristle at the language law.
Osman Kozlica, who is enrolled in a German class sponsored by the Red Cross,
hopes improving his language skills will help him find
work. The 48-year-old Bosnian, who came to Austria two decades ago, is
unemployed after losing a construction job.
"Had there been something like this when I arrived, I would have learned
properly from the beginning," he said.
His teacher, Hans Volker Kieweler, also supports the new law.