Austria Table of Contents

Austria's position in Central Europe after World War II--by 1948 about 1,225 kilometers, or 46 percent, of its frontiers were with communist states--and the proclamation of Austrian neutrality in October 1955 made Austria Europe's most important country of east-west transit, transmigration, and the claiming of refugee status. Between 1945 and 1990, approximately 2.6 million people came to Austria as immigrants, transmigrants or refugees. The great majority of them stayed in Austria only for short periods, and some 550,000 used Austria exclusively as a land of transit. Approximately 1.4 million people were transmigrants who lived in Austria before emigrating to other countries or returning to their countries of origin. About 650,000 people, over half of whom were not ethnic Germans or native German speakers, settled permanently in Austria, the great majority of whom became citizens.

Although Austrians traditionally viewed their country as a neutral land of transit and political asylum, they did not see Austria as a land of immigration like the United States, Canada, or Australia. This perception, however, does not correspond to the fact that more than 10 percent of the country's citizens in 1990 had not been born in Austria and that in the early 1990s more than 500,000 legal foreigners, predominantly guest workers, lived in the country.

Waves of immigration were caused by political events in neighboring countries. After the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, for example, over 250,000 Hungarians fled to Austria, 180,000 of whom eventually applied for asylum. In August 1968, after the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia ended the "Prague Spring," 162,000 Czechs and Slovaks fled to Austria. Although the majority of them eventually returned to Czechoslovakia, 12,000 applied for asylum. In Poland the banning of the Solidarity Movement in December 1981 caused between 120,000 and 150,000 Poles to go to Austria, and 33,000 of them applied for asylum. The opening of Hungary's borders during the summer of 1989 breached the Iron Curtain, and 40,000 East Germans used Austria as a land of transit to emigrate to West Germany.

In addition to European immigrants, since 1972 Austria has accepted contingents of asylum seekers from a number of countries--Chile, Argentina, Uganda, Iran, and Afghanistan--under the auspices of international agreements. Austria was also the main land of transit for 250,000 Jewish emigrants from the Soviet Union beginning in 1976 until the advent of direct Soviet immigration to Israel in 1990.

The number of individuals seeking political asylum in Austria rose from fewer than 5,000 in 1982 to more than 27,000 in 1991. Before the Iron Curtain fell at the end of 1989, the granting of political asylum in Austria to refugees was relatively liberal. Once democratic governments were established in the former communist states of Eastern Europe and borders were opened, however, Austria began to pursue a more restrictive asylum policy. A distinction came to be made between political refugees and so-called economic refugees, who sought more lucrative employment or better living conditions. As a result, the number of those seeking asylum fell to 16,200 in 1992.

The number of people seeking to immigrate to Austria had increased so greatly by the early 1990s that the nation's army, the Bundesheer (Federal Army), was called in to assist customs and border authorities in patrolling the country's borders. After the fall of communism, these borders were virtually open for a time. By 1992 as many as 100,000 illegal immigrants were in Austria. In addition, for humanitarian reasons, Austria had accepted well over 50,000 refugees from the former Yugoslavia, who had either fled or were expelled from their homes in the course of hostilities that began in 1991. Most of these refugees were Bosnians.

The presence of a large number of foreign workers in Austria also affected population trends. The size of this group fluctuated according to the state of the country's economy. From the mid-1960s through the early 1970s, a period of rapid domestic economic growth, Austria's domestic labor force was not large enough to satisfy the demands of its growing economy, and foreign workers were brought in to meet the labor shortage. Most were unskilled Yugoslavs and Turks who assumed menial jobs with low salaries. As a result of this influx, the number of foreign workers in Austria increased from fewer than 50,000 in 1965 to some 220,000 in 1974. The recession of the second half of the 1970s and early 1980s had reduced their number to 140,000 by 1984. Periods of growth later in the decade raised it to 264,000 by 1991.

Despite these fluctuations, guest workers and their dependents had become a permanent feature of Austria's population and accounted for 80 percent of the 550,000 legally registered foreign inhabitants in Austria in 1991. The remaining 20 percent consisted of asylum seekers and refugees who had fled from the conflict in the former Yugoslavia.

A shrinking population caused by lower birth rates was Austria's greatest demographic concern in the 1970s and early 1980s. Although the low birth rate among Austria's indigenous German-speaking population continues to be an issue, many Austrians are also concerned about the growing number of foreigners in Austria. To offset the low birth rate, Austria needs a projected net annual growth of approximately 25,000 people per year in order to maintain population at a stable level. Most of this growth will come from foreigners living in Austria or from immigrants.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress