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Austria’s benefit cuts for migrants illegal, EU Court rules

Benefit cuts imposed by Austria on migrants whose children live in their country of origin contradict EU law, the bloc's top court said Thursday.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz
Austria's former Chancellor Sebastian Kurz had defended the benefit cuts. STEFANIE LOOS / AFP

The ruling is the latest against a series of measures imposed by a previous government, which included the far-right and sought to restrict benefit payments to foreigners.

The cuts to child benefits constitute “indirect discrimination on grounds of nationality which, in any event, is not justified,” the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ruled.

The specific case relates to reforms that came into effect in 2019 which indexed child benefits according to where the recipient’s children live.

This meant reduced payments for tens of thousands of eastern Europeans who work in Austria — notably in the care sector — but whose children remain in their countries of origin.

READ ALSO: Austria court strikes down law aimed at cutting benefits for immigrants

Family Minister Susanne Raab had said earlier this year that Austria had already made provisions in case the court ruled against the measures and the state needed to pay back the money it withheld.

In 2020 the European Commission, supported by six eastern member states, brought an action before the CJEU claiming Austria was “failing to fulfil its obligations”.

Former Austrian chancellor, conservative Sebastian Kurz, had said he hoped the cuts would save €114 million a year but in 2019 they
recouped € 62 million.

The former coalition also introduced benefit cuts for immigrants who failed to reach a certain level of German, but those measures were subsequently overturned by the Austrian courts.

READ ALSO: Reader question: Will my children get an Austrian passport if born in Austria?

Kurz’s government that introduced the cuts was brought down in a corruption scandal that engulfed the far-right in May 2019.

Kurz’s centre-right People’s Party (OeVP) still rules Austria. Their current coalition partners, the Greens, opposed the benefit cuts at the time.

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CRIME

EXPLAINED: What happened at the Linz Halloween riots?

On Halloween night, dozens of people, most minors, rioted in the Upper Austrian capital. Two days after the event, Austria is still trying to understand what happened and what to do now.

EXPLAINED: What happened at the Linz Halloween riots?

On the evening of Halloween, dozens of people rioted in Linz. Images on social media appear to show that most of them look young, and the data released by the police confirmed that. 

Among the 129 suspects identified, most (73) are younger than 18, while 26 are considered to be “young adults”, so younger than 21.

What the authorities have not been able to pinpoint, though, is what led to the rioting, which ended with damaged property, injured police officers, and almost 130 people taken into custody.

What exactly happened?

On Halloween evening, October 31st, around 200 took downtown Linz streets on a rampage, damaging storefront windows and attacking unrelated groups of people with stones and even firecrackers. 

READ ALSO: Have your say: Where are the best and worst places to live in Vienna?

As a result, some 170 police officers were called out to the scene to try to drive the rioters away, Austrian media reported. The five-hour operation resulted in nine arrests and two police officers were injured. On Tuesday evening, riots broke out again, but on a much smaller scale and the people left once police arrived.

One thing that draws attention to the episode – other than the unexpected violence – is that many of the people involved were not Austrian citizens. In a country where immigrations is always a contentious issue, this issue was bound to make the headlines.

According to the police, one in three rioters were Austrian citizens. Among the 129 identified suspects, 35 are persons entitled to asylum and five are asylum seekers. In terms of nationality, it is a heterogeneous group, according to broadcaster ORF

Twelve EU citizens, 28 Syrians, and 14 Afghans. Among the Austrians, the police said 34 had a “migration background” – the report didn’t clarify precisely what that meant.

Serbs, Kosovars, North Macedonians, Romanians, Thais and Bosnians were also in the group.

READ ALSO: Tents for asylum seekers stir debate in Austria

However, authorities are still investigating the incident, and there is no final report on the age or nationality of all involved.

What was the role of social media? 

The other point that ensured the riots would stay in the headlines for a while was how they came to happen. 

According to the authorities, the initial evaluation is that the event was unorganised and the rioters had no clear structure. Instead, it was more likely “a loose gathering of young people who had joined forces via social media”, Der Standard reported.

The police are now looking into several videos on TikTok, where young people announced the rioting by saying they wanted to turn Linz “into Athena”. Some videos had more than 19,000 likes and comments discussing how the night would be of “war”.

READ ALSO: IN NUMBERS: Who are the asylum seekers trying to settle in Austria?

The Athena comment references a film available on the streaming platform Netflix. The plot centres on the chaos erupting in a French neighbourhood known as Athena after the brutal killing of a child of Algerian origin. Massive riots and confrontations between the police and the population are shown.

What is going to happen now?

The police are still piecing together everything that happened two days after the riots. On social media, there are calls for further rioting (on New Year’s Eve), and xenophobic and racist comments as well, with many blaming asylum seekers and migrants for the events. 

“There’s a lot of tension in the air,” Erich Wahl of the Youth and Leisure Association (VJF), which is in charge of youth work in Linz, told Der Standard on what could have motivated the riots. 

READ ALSO: What measures against foreigners is Austria’s far-right trying to take?

Wahl mentioned that the Covid-19 crisis, inflation, and even the war in Ukraine could add to “built-up anger”, especially in young kids. Added to that, immigrants are often in a more difficult situation. 

For example, young people with Afghan, Syrian and Iraqi citizenship have a 21.9 percent unemployment rate, almost four times higher than for Austrians, the daily added.

Interior Minister Gerhard Karner (ÖVP) said the government wants to use “the full force of the law”.

Karner focused on the third-country citizens, saying their permits would be “examined” and that removal from the country could occur in serious criminal offences. 

READ ALSO: ANALYSIS: Could Austria ever change the rules to allow dual citizenship?

He added that he wanted deportations to happen also to Syria and Afghanistan, where most of the suspects were from, but mentioned that this would be in the “long-term”, as deportations to war states are not allowed under international law.

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