Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Austria is adjacent to the Balkan countries and to the new European Union (EU) member countries in Central Europe. It has been a centre for migration from the east for hundreds of years and continues to be so.
Austria has long had a shifting population. Slovenes settled much of present-day Austria, parts of Italy and Hungary, as well as Slovenia, from the sixth to the ninth centuries. By 1500 changing alliances and dynasties reduced their territory to southern Austria, Slovenia, eastern Italy and western Hungary, and this was ruled by the Hapsburgs until 1918. German immigration to Carinthia and Styria from the thirteenth century further reduced Slovene numbers there.
Jewish immigration and money-lending was encouraged by a charter giving Jews protection issued in 1244 by Count Friedrich II of Austria. Even so, hatred preached in Christian churches against Jews led to their expulsion from Carinthia and Styria to Burgenland in 1496. By the seventeenth century, prosperous Viennese Jews were members of the royal court. Repression from 1740 to 1780 was followed by the Tolerance Edict of 1781. Jews were accorded equal rights and full participation in society in 1867. Jews became prominent in finance, business, the arts and learning. After the First World War Zionists formed the Jewish National Council to fight against assimilation and anti-semitism. Jews were among the leaders of the Social Democratic Party. With the rise of National Socialism, many emigrated. The annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany in 1938, the Anschluss, was followed by the deportation of around 100,000 Jews to concentration camps, where 70,000 died. Jewish property was confiscated and restitution since 1945 has been restricted to those Jews who kept their Austrian nationality and did not adopt foreign nationality.
Roma were recorded in Burgenland at the end of the fourteenth century. Favourable conditions for them led to the first settlements there in the early seventeenth century. However, in the late seventeenth century they were banned. Their persecution continued with so-called ‘gypsy hunts’ in the early eighteenth century, followed in the later part of the century by forced inter-racial marriage and seizure of Roma children to be brought up by German-speaking families. The nomadic lifestyle was banned, and the Roma forced to live on the edge of villages. They made their living as knife-grinders, broom makers, seasonal farm workers and musicians. In 1928 they were forced to register on a ‘gypsy index’. Regarded as an inferior race by the Nazis, from 1939 they were interned, then deported to concentration camps, where the majority died. Despite the ban on nomadic lifestyle, the Sinti, a distinct group similar to the Roma, worked as travelling salesmen, makers of umbrellas and musical instruments, acrobats, actors and musicians until the 1930s, when they met the same persecution as the Roma. Those who survived the concentration camps or managed to escape deportation benefited from the post-war economic revival in the cities. The Sinti have maintained their anonymity, unlike the Roma in Burgenland, who became an official minority in 1993.
Croat immigration began after the first Turkish siege of Vienna in 1529 and Turkish occupation of the Balkans. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries immigrant Czechs and Slovaks provided cheap labour for Austria’s industrialization. In 1910 the majority of Vienna’s inhabitants were not born there. Discrimination and the requirement of those who would settle to swear to uphold vigorously ‘the German character’ of Vienna resulted in most immigrants being assimilated within one generation.
The rural areas, where the established minorities were settled, saw massive emigration to the USA from the late nineteenth century, increasing in the 1920s and 1930s as agriculture declined. Rural minorities also moved to the Austrian cities. These trends, coupled with the pressure to assimilate, have led to a constant decline in established minority populations.
The main centres for established minorities have been Burgenland (Croats, Hungarians and Slovaks) and Carinthia (Slovenes). Carinthia saw increasing German settlement over the centuries. Nazi activity was particularly strong in Carinthia and against the Slovenes generally in the 1930s and 1940s. Many were dispossessed of property and some were deported to concentration camps. Strong right-wing politics remain a feature of the German-speaking population in Carinthia and Styria.
The Republic of Austria was occupied by French, British, US and Soviet troops after the Second World War. The Austrian State Treaty of 1955, which restored sovereignty, gave official minority status to the Croats in Burgenland and the Slovenes in Carinthia and Styria. The Slovene and Croat languages were recognized as official minority languages for use in administration and legal affairs and education in these districts.
In the 1960s Austria invited Gastarbeiter (guest workers), principally from Turkey, former Yugoslavia and Poland. But neither they nor their children have residency rights. The 1976 Aliens Employment Act restricted immigration with different types of work permits. The 1993 Residency Act set annual immigration quotas and introduced separate work and residence permits, with family members of immigrants not allowed to work. From the late 1990s, family reunification rules were made more restrictive. Newly unemployed non-nationals are liable to deportation. Austria’s tough policy on asylum seekers has been criticized by the Council of Europe and other members of the EU, which Austria joined in 1995. But the influence of new right-wing parties from the 1990s, the war on terror from 2001, the enlargement of the EU from 2004 and the enactment of new EU anti-discrimination laws resulted in the introduction of even more stringent measures for new immigrants and policing in 2006.
Main languages: German
Main religions: Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam
Minority groups include former Yugoslavs 322,261 (4.0%), other Central and Eastern Europeans 59,353 (0.7%), Turks 127,226 (1.6%), Roma/Gypsies 20,000-30,000, Burgenland Croats 19,374, Carinthian Slovenes 12,554, Styrian Slovenes 2,192, Burgenland and Viennese Hungarians 25,884, Jews 8,140 and Czechs 11,035.
There is strong pressure to assimilate and naturalization increased from 2.2 per cent of the foreign population in 1992 to 4.2 per cent in 2001. The trend continues upwards. Nearly 30 per cent of those acquiring nationality in 2004 were born in Austria. Once minorities have Austrian citizenship, their minority origin is no longer recorded in national statistics, making indirect discrimination on the basis of race or ethnicity hard to track.
There are 13 officially recognized religions. In 2001 Roman Catholics accounted for 5.9 million (73.4%), followed by Protestants (Augsberger and Helvetic) 376,150 (4.7%), Muslims 338,988 (4.2%), Greek Eastern Orthodox (Russian, Greek, Serb, Romanian and Bulgarian) 174,385 (2.2%), Old Roman Catholics 14,621, Buddhists 10,402, Jews 8,140 and the following small congregations: New Apostolic, Mormons, Armenian Apostolic, Coptic Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox and Methodist. There are nine other religions which have fewer rights, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, Free Christian and Pentecostal, Evangelical, Seventh Day Adventists, Hindu, Baptists, Christian Movement for Religious Revival, Baha’i, and Pentecostalists in Austria.
The 1955 State Treaty is the basis for protection of minorities. It recognizes Croat and Slovene as official languages in addition to German in Burgenland, Carinthia and Styria, where there were significant ‘mixed’ populations. The State Treaty also bans acts of discrimination. The burden of proof lay with the plaintiff. Penalties for racial discrimination were mainly focused on preventing a revival of National Socialism. Other measures against discrimination were aimed at keeping the peace rather than improving conditions for victims. Data was collected on racial crimes and the activities of right-wing extremists, giving an incomplete picture of discrimination. In 2004 anti-discrimination measures were enacted in civil and employment law.
In 1976 the Austrian Parliament passed the Status of Ethnic Groups in Austria Act, extending the rights of recognized ethnic groups to allow for minority representation and thus the facilitation of funding for minority protection. Burgenland Hungarians and Viennese Czechs became official minorities. One year later, Ethnic Advisory Councils were set up to assist the federal government in all matters concerning Austria’s Croat, Slovene, Hungarian and Czech minorities. The requirement that these official minorities should be settled and have a distinct ethnicity and language prompted a trend towards greater segregation, which runs counter to the State Treaty. In addition, the 1976 Act required that a ‘considerable’ part of the population (taken to be 25 per cent) should be from the minority before place-name signs could be put up in that language as well as German. The changes in the 1976 law which deviated from the State Treaty were contested by the Burgenland Croat community, who won their case at the Constitutional Court in 1987.
In 1992 the Residence Act introduced different work and residence permits, preventing family members of immigrants from working. In 1997 the amended Aliens Act set restrictive quotas on family reunification but gave greater security to immigrants living for five or more years in Austria. In 2003 new laws required immigrants to study the German language and Austrian civic duties, and to provide a health certificate. Quotas for permanent residence were reduced while temporary permits increased. Asylum would not be considered for any national of a country deemed ‘safe’ by EU governments.
The 2004 Equal Treatment Act, Federal Equal Treatment Act, and Equal Treatment Commission and Office for Equal Treatment implemented the EU’s Racial Equality Directive and the Employment Equality Directive, and introduced comprehensive anti-discrimination measures into civil and employment law for the first time. The burden of proof has shifted and the accused must establish the likelihood of non-discrimination. However, the two organizations that will oversee the application of the law are not independent of government. As anti-discrimination law is both a federal and a provincial matter, the nine provincial governments enacted the equal treatment laws by early 2006.
The Aliens Law Codification, which came into force on 1 January 2006, upheld the restrictive immigrant residency and work permit system, and introduced new limitations on asylum and new police powers of arrest.
Austrian Citizenship Act 2006
The Austrian Citizenship Act 2006 requires foreign nationals wanting to adopt Austrian citizenship to have knowledge of the democratic process and history of Austria, proof of knowledge of the German language, sufficient means of subsistence, no convictions or offences, and continuous residence of six to 30 years depending on other conditions. The six-year rule applies if the applicant is a national of another European Economic Area (EEA) state, has the official right to asylum, was born in Austria, has been married and living with an Austrian spouse for five years, or has made an exceptional contribution to science, arts or business in the interest of Austria. Those making an exceptional contribution can be granted nationality without long-term residency at the discretion of the federal government.
The authorities can also grant citizenship at their discretion to foreign nationals who have lived continuously in Austria for 10 years. Those who have lived in Austria continuously for 15 years and who have proven personal and professional integration, and those who have lived continuously in Austria for 30 years have the right to citizenship.
The provincial governments of Carinthia and Burgenland have minority education acts to allow the teaching of Slovene in Carinthia and Croat and Hungarian in Burgenland.
Religious communities are governed by an 1874 law (updated in 1998) which sets three categories: officially recognized religious societies, religious confessional communities and associations. The first can conduct religious services, set up schools and raise funding for programmes. The government provides funding for their religious teachers and private schools. This is denied to the other two categories.
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Austrian Centre for Ethnic Groups
[Researches and represents the interests of all minorities]
Tel: +43 1 222 533 1504
[Platform for minorities in Austria]
Tel. +43 1 586 124 912
International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights and Austrian Helsinki Committee
[Promotes compliance with the human rights provisions of the Helsinki Final Act, as well as to protect and strengthen civil society groups that monitor and report on human rights issues from a non-partisan perspective]
Tel: +43 1 408 88 22
ZEBRA – Interkulturelles Beratungs- und Therapiezentrum Beratung und Betreuung
[counselling and care services to foreigners (migrants and refugees) in Styria]
Tel: +43/ 316 83 56 30 0
Croats of Burgenland
Croatian-Burgenland Cultural Association in Vienna
[The umbrella organization for Burgenland Croats living in Vienna]
Tel: +43 1 504 61 52
Slovenes of Carinthia and Styria
Central Association of Slovene Organizations
Tel: +43 463 514300
Council of Carinthian Slovenes
Tel: +43 463 512 5280.
Burgenland and Viennese Hungarians
Central Federation of Hungarian Organizations and Associations in Austria
[Member organization of the West European National Federation of Hungarian Organizations]
Tel: +43 1 53260 48
Kulturverein österreichischer Roma,
Tel: +43 1 310 64 21
Sources and further reading
Austrian Ethnic Groups Centre, ‘Austria ethnica, state and perspectives’, Austrian Handbooks on Ethnic Groups, vol. 7, Vienna, 1994.
Nimni, E. (ed.), National Cultural Autonomy and its Contemporary Critics, New York, Routledge, 2005.
Schindlauer, D., ‘Report on measures to combat discrimination (Directives 2000/43/EC and 2000/78/EC)’, Country Report Austria, EU Commission, 2005.
Wischenbart, R., ‘National identity and immigration in Austria’, in M. Baldwin-Edwards and M. Schain (eds), The Politics of Immigration, London, Frank Cass, 1994.
Croats of Burgenland
HKDC & Landesschulrat, ‘Vorteil Vielfalt: 10 Jahre Minderheitenschulgesetz fur das Burgenland’, Ein Projekt des Kroatischen Kultur- und Dokumentationszentrum in Zusammenarbeit mit dem Landesschulrat fur das Burgenland, 2004.
Fennesz-Juhasz, C., Halwachs, D.W., Heinschink, M.F., ‘Sprache und Musik der österreichischen Roma’, GLS vol. 46, 1996, pp. 61-110.
Halwachs, D.W. ‘Roma und Romani in Austria’, 2004, URL, retrieved June 2007, http://romani.uni-graz.at/romani/ling/romani-at.en.shtml
Halwachs, D.W. ‘Romani in Österreich’, in D.W. Halwachs and F. Menz (eds), Die Sprache der Roma, Klagenfurt, Drava, 2001.
Hübschmannová, M., ‘The treasure of Romani folk tales’, Roma, vol. 44-5, 1996, pp. 68–79.
Rombase: http://romani.uni-graz.at/rombase/ [a project of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, Federal Chancellery, Austrian Science and Research Liaison Office in Ljubljana (Slovenia) and the EU]
Minorities and indigenous peoples in
- Burgenland and Viennese Hungarians
- Croats of Burgenland
- Slovenes of Carinthia and Styria