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Legislation Impacting Anti-Discrimination and Anti-Radicalisation Efforts

Legislation Impacting Anti-Discrimination and Anti-Radicalisation Efforts

In recent years, Austria has passed several new laws that regulate and partially restrict the rights of religious minorities, particularly Muslims. For example, the so-called "Law on Islam" - the Federal Law on External Legal Relations of Islamic Religious Societies ("Islamgesetz") of 2015 defined the "rights and obligations" of Islamic religious societies registered in Austria. The new legislation had long been expected in Austria, since the previous law was passed in 1912. Today, Austria recognizes only two Islamic religious societies: the Islamic Community in Austria and the Islamic Community Alevi in Austria.

The new law gives Muslims the right to "pastoral care," but it also limits the practice to persons who have been educated in Austria and have their principal place of residence in Austria. This condition is unique in this country and, for example, does not apply to Jewish pastoral care in the corresponding law of 2012. "The Islam Act also aims to create legal certainty for "existing and future Islamic cemeteries" and to protect Islamic religious festivals from disturbances, but it does not correlate in any way with the corresponding labor law in Austria). In addition, it gives Islamic religious societies the right to produce food in accordance with their beliefs and specifies that Islamic dietary rules "must be taken into account" for Muslims in public institutions such as the armed forces, penitentiaries, hospitals, nursing facilities and public schools. The law also establishes a framework for a new university diploma program in Islamic and theological studies at the University of Vienna, providing up to six faculty positions in a specific area of study for each of the religious societies.

The law also establishes a framework for a new university degree program in Islamic and theological studies at the University of Vienna.

The law also establishes criteria for the founding documentation of an Islamic religious society, including as far as the language of writing is concerned - it must be in German only. Moreover, a German translation of the relevant version of the Quran must be submitted to state authorities to determine whether the new community has a different religious interpretation than the two existing ones, since all newly registered religious communities must differ in their teachings from those already in existence. The law prohibits financial support from other countries for Islamic religious communities. At the same time, no other religious societies in Austria have such a ban, and some even have mandatory regulation of financial obligations. "The Islam Act also allows the federal chancellor to revoke the legal status of a local Muslim community or to terminate the recognition of a religious society by the federal government if certain requirements are met (for example, if an unconstitutional or unlawful situation persists even after warning by government services or if the society shows disrespect for Austrian society and the state. Again, these provisions are unique to religious communities in Austria, singling out Muslims.

The second major legislative change regarding Muslims in Austria was the so-called Veil Law, which came into force on October 1, 2017. After much public debate, the law did not singling out Muslims separately, but clearly directed against religiously motivated practices of covering individuals with the veil. Then-Vice Chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner justified the ban by arguing that wearing a religiously motivated veil symbolically demonstrates Muslims' reluctance to integrate; others argued that the law would free Muslim women from patriarchal oppression; while most critics recognized it as a desire to remove religious symbols of Islam from public spaces.

The law was a move to remove religious symbols of Islam from public spaces.

The law prohibits concealing facial features with "clothing or other objects in such a way that they are no longer recognized" in public places. Violation of this rule carries an administrative fine of up to 150 euros. The law was implemented as part of the so-called "integration package. This package of laws is supposedly aimed at strengthening integration "by increasing participation in public life and ensuring peaceful coexistence in Austria. The only exceptions to the facial closure restrictions are federal or state law requirements, conditions for artistic, cultural or traditional events, during sporting events, and requirements dictated by health or professional issues. These exceptions are intended to indirectly restrict the prohibition of the use of a religious veil, since a more direct approach would be clearly unconstitutional in Austria.

The year 2017 also saw a major revision of the laws concerning shelter and residence of foreign nationals in the country ("Fremdenrechtsänderungsgesetz"), which affected many minorities. This legislative package was introduced in response to the so-called "refugee crisis" of 2015/2016 and imposed many restrictions, primarily limited free movement and residence. It stipulates that asylum seekers who receive social benefits are no longer free to choose in which of Austria's nine states they live while their asylum applications are being processed. Instead, they must live in the land that provides social benefits. In addition, the law gives the authorities the right to require asylum seekers to reside permanently in the apartments in which they were registered when social benefits were assigned to them, when this is required in the public interest or by public policy requirements. People with a legally binding return decision can also be ordered to stay in a state-organized facility until their departure (under threat of a fine of 100 to 1,000 euros). The new asylum laws also make deportation, i.e. forced expulsion from the country, easier for those rejected asylum seekers and people who reside in Austria illegally.

The government also seeks to promote the voluntary departure of foreign nationals without asylum or other forms of residence: Already in 2016, the government launched the "Voluntary Departure and Return of Assistance" project. Asylum seekers who decide to return voluntarily can request information and counseling from the repatriation counseling center and can apply for financial support, which covers the costs of travel. Denied asylum seekers are now required to contribute to departure procedures, and non-compliance can result in fines or involuntary detention pending deportation. The 2017 legislation also extended the maximum length of detention before removal from 10 to 18 months. Asylum seekers whose asylum applications were rejected by the authorities now also lose their basic social assistance, even if they appeal the decision, unless the court that decides on the appeal appeals the suspension. They only get back basic social assistance if they are granted asylum or during the appeal if they facilitate departure procedures, that is, before their asylum claim has been finally rejected.

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