Learn German or you're out, Austria tells immigrants

Foreigners in Austria will be forced to learn German or face deportation, under new legislation passed yesterday.

Non-EU citizens who arrived in Austria after 1 January 1998 will be obliged to attend 100 hours of tuition in German language and culture. Those immigrants who can prove they already have German language skills, and high-ranking managers and other professionals who stay for less than two years can be excused.

Participants will be obliged to pay half of the estimated €350 (£230) cost of the course. The state's contribution drops to a quarter after 18 months for foreigners who do not comply with the regulations, and to zero after two years. After three years, anyone who has not completed the course will be fined and after four years of non-compliance their residence permit will be withdrawn.

The "integration contract" has been heavily criticised by the opposition Social Democrats and Greens.During the parliamentary debate on the Bill, the Greens' migration spokeswoman, Terezija Stoisits, appealed for MPs to vote "no to the de-integration package, yes to integration".

But the centre-right People's Party, which governs in a coalition with the far right-wing Freedom Party, argued that the government was merely addressing the concerns of ordinary Austrians.

Peter Westenthaler, the Freedom Party's parliamentary leader, described the new law as "one of the most modern pieces of legislation on foreigners in Europe".

In autumn 1999 there was an international outcry when the Freedom Party ran an election campaign with posters calling for an end to Überfremdung ("being swamped by foreigners"). Several months later, diplomatic sanctions were imposed on Austria by the EU when the Freedom Party entered national government.

Now, the party is relishing the swing to the right in recent European elections. The party's de facto leader, Jörg Haider, said such election results were "the best confirmation" of far right-wing ideas.

Recent ideas from within the Freedom Party include paying new immigrants only as much social security benefits as they would receive in their home country, and making asylum-seekers clean up dog faeces. With general elections due next year, this is probably just a taste of what is in store.