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Austria puts the squeeze on refugees with benefit cuts

Austria puts the squeeze on refugees with benefit cuts
From Reuters - October 4, 2017

VIENNA (Reuters) - 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 years 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 didnt 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 Austrias nine provinces -- Lower Austria, Burgenland and Upper Austria -- have reduced benefits for new arrivals. Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, leader of the conservative Peoples 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.

LEGAL CHALLENGE

So far, the cuts have primarily impacted migrants like Ali who sought asylum in Austria when it opened its border in 2015 although some Austrians returning home have also been caught.

In Burgenland the rules apply to all people seeking help who have spent fewer than five years of the six preceding their application for benefits in Austria.

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. The Lower Austrian government declined to comment due to a legal challenge against the cuts.

In a case brought by a charity, Austrias Constitutional Court is expected to rule next year on whether the cuts by Lower Austria, decided in late 2016 and implemented since early 2017, are illegal.

The 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention says host countries must grant refugees the same treatment with respect to public relief and assistance as their own nationals. A 2011 EU directive sets a similar rule.

The U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR), which has denounced xenophobic debates in Austrian politics ahead of the election,has described the cuts as breaches of international and European law but no international cases have been started.

A Burgenland spokeswoman defended the benefits changes, saying they targeted Austrian nationals as well.

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