By Rainer Bauböck and Gerd Valchars
Early in the morning of 28 January, heavily armed police escorted four children of rejected asylum seekers (three minor girls and a boy) to the airport from where they were deported to Georgia and Armenia. The incident caused widespread protests because the children had been living and attending school in Austria for many years and were considered well integrated. The social democratic governor of Carinthia, Peter Kaiser, and others called for a debate on ius soli, the attribution of citizenship by birth in the territory.
In a guest commentary in one of the Austrian leading newspapers "Der Standard", political scientists Rainer Bauböck and Gerd Valchars show that Austria's citizenship law is in urgent need of reform - and how other countries handle this. The text below is a slightly modified English translation.
Children who were born and went to school in Austria are being deported because their parents have no right to asylum. The ongoing discussion focuses on whether the Minister of the Interior could have refrained from deporting them despite the negative decision of the courts, whether the best interests of the child should take precedence over state interests, whether such cases should be examined by a hardship commission in the future, and whether the federal provinces must be re-involved in this examination.
A few voices state the obvious. Because of their circumstances of life, the children who were deported are Austrians. They can only be deported because they do not have Austrian citizenship. Our citizenship law only provides for the possibility of naturalization for children born in Austria after six years of residence, and they must meet the same harsh conditions as first-generation adult immigrants.
When asked whether the citizenship law should not be reformed, ÖVP parliamentary faction chairman August Wöginger answered twice on ORF (the Austrian public broadcasting corporation): "We have a well-functioning citizenship law." No, Mr. Chairman, we don’t! In December, the Brussels Migration Policy Group published the current figures of its Migrant Integration Policy Index (MIPEX), which social scientists consider a solid measurement tool for integration policies. In a recent comparison of access to nationality in 52 countries Austria ends up in last place, together with Bulgaria.
Born in the country
The NGO SOS Mitmensch (SOS fellow human being) has therefore called for children born in Austria to be automatically granted citizenship if one parent has lived in the country for six years prior to birth. With such a conditional ius soli Austria would join Germany, Finland, France, Greece, Great Britain, Ireland, Luxembourg or Portugal. In the case of Tina and her little sister, however, this would not have prevented the deportations because the mother had not been in the country long enough before giving birth and her stay was linked to her ongoing asylum procedure. Only an unconditional ius soli, in which birth in the country alone is sufficient for the automatic acquisition of citizenship, would have protected the girls. According to GLOBALCIT, such a birthright exists in as many as 31 countries worldwide, most of which are in North and South America. In Europe, there has been no unconditional ius soli since 2004.
One argument against unconditional ius soli is that it creates an incentive for "birth tourism". This cannot be dismissed out of hand. Middle class mothers from Mexico and China pay a lot of money to deliver their babies in specialized birth clinics in the US so that their children get American citizenship. One can also rightly object that the mere coincidence of birth in the territory is not a sufficient indicator of attachment to a state. However, when children grow up and go to school in a country, this is certainly enough evidence that that country is their home.
So, in addition to birth, socialization in the country needs to be added as a second and crucial indicator for belonging. And here there are several European countries that can serve as models. Let's look at the two European MIPEX leaders: In Portugal, minors are eligible for naturalization if they were born in the country and have been in school or training there for at least one year. In Sweden, underage children with permanent residency get citizenship after three years (or two years for stateless children) with no further conditions, based on a simple declaration by their parents.
Is there a chance for reform?
The obvious solution, then, would be to reform the Austrian citizenship law to introduce both a conditional ius soli and an entitlement to citizenship for minors regardless of their place of birth and their parents' residence status. Would that create an incentive for abusive asylum applications? This cannot be completely ruled out, but the answer is surely obvious: fair and speedy asylum procedures would eliminate this incentive.
Is there any chance of such a reform in Austria? The Green Party is currently being harshly criticized by many for not having the courage to risk even breaking up the government coalition on this issue. Green MP Sibylle Hamann is right that this would not help anyone. However, there is not a single word about citizenship in the coalition agreement. This issue was obviously left out because the Greens were not in favor of further restrictions. In view of the continuation of the agenda of the right-wing ÖVP-FPÖ government (2017-19) in the other areas of migration and asylum policy, this silence on naturalization was a small and little-noticed success for the Greens. Now, however, they are challenged to actually use this leeway. Given the unattractive alternative coalition options for the ÖVP, it is not very likely that Chancellor Sebastian Kurz will let the coalition fall apart if the Greens make a push for the overdue reform of the citizenship law.
What is needed now for the deported children is a humanitarian repatriation campaign. For thousands of children who are threatened with deportation from their Austrian homeland in the future, a reform of the citizenship law is needed.