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2006-06-16

What is wrong with the new immigration model of the Austrian Greens 

Something must be horribly wrong, mustn't it, when suddenly both the governing conservatives and even the far-right Haider-BZÖ express sympathies [DE] for the new Green immigration policy that was presented two weeks ago (press agency summary [DE] and 5-page press-materials [DE]). Not so fast: for the right of the political spectrum, embracing pragmatic Green proposals is a well-proven electoral strategy to damage the Greens on their electoral left wing, at least to the extent that these manoeuvers are not all too easy to see through for voters.

In any case, the Green model represents an innovation within the framework of Austrian immigration policy debates, although its core principles are presented explicitly as a copy of Canadian and US greencard-systems. Instead of the current Austrian immigration system that is based on yearly quotas (which are quickly exhausted) and on exception rules for VIPs (mostly, international managers), the Greens want to introduce a point-scoring system, by which immigrants that fulfill certain criteria such as language skills, formal education levels and age limits will gain points that will give them the right to immigrate if they pass a dynamic point threshold. The point threshold would be adapted according to economic and political immigration goals.

Using new language for the traditionally immigration-friendly Greens, migration-spokeswoman Terezija Stoisits said "This is not a social policy project for future immigrants, but a system for fulfilling the needs of the majority population", and party-leader Van der Bellen estimated that in the face of current high unemployment levels, the point threshold would be set so high that no more than 2000 prospective immigrants would manage to pass it every year, while the priority should be put on better integration of immigrants already living in Austria.

The Greens claim that the current quota system creates arbitrary unfairness to latecomers who miss the quota. And even the conservative interior minister admits that the VIP-exception rules are intransparent and in need of reform.

However, at least in the 5-page version of the model (I have not been able to obtain a more detailed version than that anywhere, and I doubt one exists), the authors acknowledge that point-scoring models are inherently unjust, since they favour those who are already in a priviledged position in their place of origin, which for example helps them to obtain higher formal qualification levels.

Unfortunately, the answers presented to this problem in the paper are sketchy at best: Formal qualifications obtained by women or in non-OECD countries should be rewarded with higher scores to make up for systematic disadvantages; and Austrian public investments in the education systems of poor countries should increase the chances for would-be immigrants to obtain formal qualifications there. Especially the latter point strikes me as a rather utopian measure for countering the social bias of the model effectively.

The defense adopted by the party-leadership is to insist on clear distinctions between asylum seekers, family reunion schemes, and economic migration; the new model targets only economic immigration, while open access and fair treatment should be guaranteed to both asylum seekers and split families. However, this is a no-brainer - as Van der Bellen himself has often insisted, there is not even such a thing as "asylum policy"; asylum is a right, about which not much should have to be said in politics (although sadly, the reality is rather different, as the government takes pride in its restrictive asylum policy). On the legal level, the asylum situation does not provide much clues for how we should deal with economic immigration.

I am afraid that within the group process that led to the new Green immigration model, a historic blind spot in the Green as well as in the wider NGO human-rights movement seems to have played a role. This blind spot arises from the insistence that asylum-type migrants are purely motivated by the need to escape human rights violations, whereas economic migrants, in stark contrast, are motivated by egoistic goals of economic improvement for themselves. This, I believe, is rather an idealisation of the situation of many asylum seekers, since for many of them economic motives are quite important too.

I would claim therefore that while the legal and moral situations with regards to asylum vs economic immigration are totally different, the personal motivations of the involved migrants are to be understood as situated along a continuum from political persecution to economic aspiration. Awareness of this continuum should lead to a more sympathetic attitude towards the economic migrant, who is a rational economic agent that brings along optimism, energy and entrepreneurialism to his chosen country. At least, such are the first-generation migrants I have met in my life. Their value for the Austrian "majority-society" does not derive primarily from their language skills, formal qualification levels or branch of professional activity. Rather it derives from their overflowing energy and ambition, something otherwise in short supply in this static nation.

I dislike a view of economic immigration policy as a school-like situation where a bureaucratic immigration-headmaster grades the formal achievements of aspiring students. Economic immigration should bring along a healthy dose of randomness, and provide chance opportunity as well - if necessary, through the introduction of a sizeable lottery-type contingent for economic immigration visas, as exists in the US. That such a lottery system was apparently removed from an earlier draft of the Green immigration model - that is what's wrong with it.

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