At the end of 2000, Austria hosted more than 6,100 refugees and asylum seekers in need of protection. These included 1,002 persons granted asylum during the year, 1,567 individuals granted protection against deportation, and 3,581 applicants awaiting first-instance decisions on their applications.

Asylum seekers filed 18,284 applications for asylum in Austria during 2000, a 9.2 percent decrease from the 20,129 applications filed in 1999. During the year, the largest number of asylum seekers came from Afghanistan (4,205), followed by claimants from Iran (2,559), India (2,441), Iraq (2,361), and Yugoslavia (1,486).

Of the 5,789 asylum applicants who received merits adjudication of their cases in 2000, the Federal Refugee Office granted 1,002 asylum, an approval rate of 17.3 percent, a significant decrease from the 50.7 percent approval rate in 1999. Austria's high overall approval rate for 1999 reflected the large number of refugees from the Kosovo region of Yugoslavia who were granted asylum.

The refugee office denied the claims of 4,787 applicants during the year, and of these 663 as manifestly unfounded. It also closed the cases of 14,725 asylum seekers.

Austria came under intense international criticism in February, when the far-right Freedom Party, which won 27.2 percent of the parliamentary vote in 1999 elections, formed a coalition with the conservative People's Party. The Freedom Party, which ran on a platform of halting the "over-foreignization" of Austria, has long drawn fire for espousing anti-immigrant policies and xenophobic views.

Following widespread condemnation of the new coalition, the member nations of the European Union (EU) announced that they would downgrade diplomatic relations with Austria. The campaign to isolate Austria politically ended in September after three experts appointed by the European Court of Human Rights concluded in a report that the treatment of minorities, refugees, and immigrants in Austria was equivalent to that of other EU member states.

Austria's Asylum Procedure

Austria's asylum procedure is governed by the 1997 Asylum Act. The Federal Refugee Office (hereafter "refugee office"), an agency within the Interior Ministry, is responsible for making first-instance decisions on asylum applications. Asylum seekers may appeal negative decisions to the independent Federal Asylum Review Board, and further appeals with Austrian administrative courts are possible.

The asylum procedure grants provisional residency rights to applicants. However, under certain circumstances, asylum seekers with provisional residence permits still may be detained during the asylum procedure to ensure their deportation if denied asylum. Asylum seekers who enter Austria illegally and are channeled into the accelerated procedure do not have provisional residency rights.

Under the Federal Care Provisions Act of 1991, asylum seekers are, in principle, given accommodation, basic health care, and modest stipends if they are unable to care for themselves. However, in practice, only about one-third of asylum seekers receive federal care. Many are excluded from state assistance for various reasons, including lack of identity papers or for having committed a criminal offense. Asylum seekers ineligible for federal care often must rely on increasingly overburdened religious and charitable organizations for their basic needs. Recognized refugees receive long-term residence permits, the right to work, and eligibility for integration assistance.

In June, the Parliament passed a bill approving amendments to the Aliens Act that would impose penalties on people who assist illegal immigrants, even if the assistance is provided for humanitarian reasons. Under the new legislation, a person can face criminal charges for providing aid, such as an apartment rental, to an immigrant who lacks a valid residence permit, or for soliciting the services of a trafficker to help bring a refugee into Austria from a region in conflict.

Barriers to Asylum

The 1997 asylum law maintains that applicants arriving from safe third countries (countries the asylum seeker transited where he or she could request and receive protection, according to Austria) are not admissible to the asylum procedure. Austria considers third countries as safe for the return of asylum seekers if they: are signatories to the UN Refugee Convention and the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms; have established asylum procedures, including an appeals procedure; grant returning asylum seekers access to that procedure; and allow them to remain safely in the country pending the outcome of their status determinations.

The refugee office considered most of Austria's eastern neighbors – Slovenia, Hungary, and the Czech Republic – to be safe third countries in 2000. However, the Federal Asylum Review Board has periodically overturned refugee office decisions made on safe third country grounds. In February, a High Administrative Court ruling determined that the Slovak Republic could not be considered a safe third country.

An asylum amendment that entered into force in 1999 extended from two to ten days the deadline to file an appeal for applicants denied asylum in Austria's accelerated procedure. Applicants deemed inadmissible on safe third country grounds or because another EU member state is responsible for reviewing the application (under the Dublin Convention) and applicants whose cases are considered manifestly unfounded are subject to the accelerated procedure. The extension of the filing deadline followed a July 1998 ruling by Austria's Constitutional Court, which found unconstitutional the previous 48-hour deadline to file an appeal.

Austria's 1997 asylum law also created an accelerated airport procedure. Although the law gave the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) the power to refer negative decisions in airports to the normal asylum procedure, the procedure has not functioned as originally intended. UNHCR said that authorities circumvented UNHCR review by admitting most asylum seekers arriving by air into Austria, but then denying their cases as manifestly unfounded once in the country. An amendment to the airport procedure that took effect in 1999 appeared to offer legal backing to this approach by explicitly stating that UNHCR's involvement in case assessments is only required for applicants whose cases are decided at airports.

Detention and Human Rights Violations

Human rights groups sharply criticized Austria's detention conditions during 2000. On May 3, a Nigerian asylum applicant died in custody while awaiting trial for alleged drug offenses. Although the official cause of death was determined to be a drug overdose, witnesses reported that police officers had beaten the asylum seeker, possibly contributing to his death. Results of an internal investigation into the incident were pending at year's end.

Austria's detention of unaccompanied minor asylum seekers continued to be controversial in 2000. In January, four asylum seekers under the age of 16 were released from detention in Innsbruck after a human rights group complained. In August, Austria's Human Rights Council recommended to the Ministry of the Interior that the detention of children under the age of 14 should be prohibited by law. The Austrian Interior Minister announced a decree in October to improve detention conditions for minors. Under the decree's provisions, unaccompanied minors are entitled to the assistance of a guardian, such as a representative from a youth welfare office.

Readmission Agreements

Austria has signed readmission agreements with Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Slovenia, and the Slovak Republic. These agreements do not refer to asylum seekers and refugees, but to foreigners in general. Austria also has signed a bilateral protocol with Romania that applies solely to the return of nationals of both states. In 2000, Austria signed readmission agreements with Latvia and Lithuania, and also concluded an agreement with Liechtenstein and Switzerland that replaced one from 1955.

As a member of the EU, Austria is also party to the Dublin Convention, which determines the EU member state responsible for deciding an asylum claim, as well as the Schengen Convention, which establishes a system of common visas and data exchange on asylum seekers and other foreigners (see box, below).

Kosovo Albanians

Most of the estimated 1,600 Kosovo Albanians remaining in Austria with temporary protection at the end of 1999 were required to leave the country by May 31, 2000, while certain persons were allowed to remain until July 31 for humanitarian reasons. Some 1,300 returned to Kosovo with assistance from the International Organization for Migration between January and October of 2000, while approximately 900 Kosovars remained in Austria at the end of 2000 awaiting decisions on asylum claims.


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