In May 1957, Austria’s interior minister Oskar Helmer told his council of ministers that the country had “earned ourselves a name in the entire world” for its generous treatment of people fleeing the failed Hungarian Revolution. Its capital, Vienna, welcomed refugees from Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia over the course of the Cold War.
The current interior minister, Herbert Kickl, also got the world’s attention in January this year: he provoked controversy when he called for “infrastructure that would allow the authorities to concentrate asylum seekers in one place.” In recent years, especially since the election of a right-wing coalition government in 2017, Austria has taken an increasingly hard line on refugees. But the city of Vienna has pulled in the opposite direction, responding to record numbers of arrivals in 2015 by expanding the range of services it provides.
The city’s efforts to help asylum seekers — coordinating the work of different agencies and finding ways around restrictive federal rules — are a testament to the power of local government. But the challenges Vienna has faced, as national policy continues to grow harsher, also paint a stark picture of the limits of local initiative.
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Avoiding past mistakes
Vienna launched Start Wien, its integration program for immigrants from outside the EU, in 2008. A previous generation of migrants, mostly guest-workers from Turkey and Yugoslavia, had been given very little help settling into the city.
“We realised that the first month and the first year are quite decisive for how you fit in to a country,” said Ursula Struppe, head of integration and diversity in the Vienna municipal government.
New arrivals are contacted when they receive their residence permit and given help to find a German language course that fits their personal circumstances, guidance about the city’s health and education systems and an introduction to the work opportunities available in Vienna.
“The first month and the first year are quite decisive for how you fit in to a country”
The program was expanded to offer the same benefits to migrants from other EU countries in 2011.
But in 2015 Europe experienced a significant increase in the number of asylum seekers, who had not previously been catered to by Start Wien. The traditional approach was to wait until someone received a final decision on their asylum claim. But, Struppe said, “this was just evading the situation.” Nearly 90,000 people claimed asylum in Austria in 2015, and the waiting time for a decision ballooned to several years. The city decided to adopt an approach it called “integration from day one”.
That was particularly important, according to Christoph Reinprecht of the University of Vienna, because it’s very difficult for asylum seekers to integrate without support in Austria since they’re unable to work or access public housing. The asylum process could easily become a “depressing waiting situation” for migrants, he said, without help from the local government.
Learning from new challenges
The expansion of support for asylum seekers was enabled by money from the EU’s Urban Innovative Actions fund. A new project under the Start Wien umbrella — the Centre of Refugee Empowerment, or CoRE — aimed to address two challenges unique to integrating asylum seekers.
One was that a large number of different public agencies have partial responsibility for helping refugees. The Vienna Social Fund is in charge of financial assistance, while other bodies were helping to provide housing, training and healthcare. According to Reinprecht, they often work in incompatible ways.
“We brought together as many partners as we could,” Struppe agreed. “You can only succeed if we work very closely together, with a lot of communication.”
The second challenge was to adapt the services available to asylum seekers’ particular circumstances. Language classes, Struppe said, are offered on a different basis than for other migrants: they can be more intensive, but need to be provided for free.
Skills training, too, has to be tailored because of the restrictions on asylum seekers’ access to work. Migrants of all kinds often end up working in jobs they’re overqualified for. According to Reinprecht, that risk is particularly acute for asylum seekers, who only have the right to take limited kinds of job – such as seasonal agriculture or tourism work – during an asylum process that may take years.
“Since 2015, a lot has moved in the way our institutions think about this”
“Normally they would be obliged to participate in language training, and that’s all,” Reinprecht said. But once people are granted refugee status, he continued, “they need their old skills. And if they haven’t trained in between, it’s very hard to get them recognised.” Avoiding that kind of de-qualification requires coordinated steps.
In one CoRE initiative, a competence check by the labour market authority — usually meant to place people in work — was instead used to identify a group of mainly Syrian teachers. The project gave them specific training in how the Austrian school system works, and then coordinated with schools to arrange placements as supporting teachers.
Other initiatives include entrepreneurship training and peer support from refugees granted asylum. All, Reinprecht said, similarly try to reduce the risks of leaving asylum seekers inactive with no opportunity to develop their skills.
Cities can only do so much
The deepest difficulty with the “integration from day one” approach, however, is one the local government has little power to address. Asylum seekers’ uncertainty about whether they will be allowed to stay in the country can make them less motivated to try to integrate.
At the beginning of the program, Struppe said, this problem was not so acute. Most asylum seekers wanted to stay, and were eager to boost their chances by showing their commitment. “People thought that it might be good to have a lot of papers,” Struppe said, “showing that ‘I do want to be integrated’.”
But more recently, she said, a growing number of deportations — especially to Afghanistan — have made engagement more difficult. Asylum seekers with advanced levels of German have been removed from the country; some participants in CoRE programs, according to Reinprecht, have subsequently been deported.
Even for those who are granted asylum, the federal government has introduced a time-limited form of protected status which means they may have to leave after three or five years. “Under those conditions, refugees or asylum seekers may tend to be oriented not so much to training but more to immediate income,” Reinprecht said.
This problem can be partly mitigated, he added, by focusing less on language and more on knowledge and skills which could be useful outside Austria. The ultimate reality, though, is that Vienna has no influence on the policy lever which makes by far the most difference to asylum seekers’ lives.
The previous government, a social democrat-led coalition, opposed Vienna’s moves to help asylum seekers because it viewed them as a pull factor for new arrivals. Kickl, the current interior minister from the far-right Freedom Party, in April called his new government’s approach — which includes searching migrants’ phones to check where they’ve travelled from — the most “restrictive asylum policy as possible”.
For those who are allowed to stay, though, the city’s integration efforts can make an enormous difference. With new arrivals of asylum seekers now very low, the city’s attention is turning to the later stages of helping recognised refugees into full-time work that uses their skills.
That’s a task, Struppe said, which the development of the CoRE program has made Vienna much better-equipped to handle.
“Since 2015, a lot has moved in the way our institutions think about this,” she said. “The challenge was good, in a way, for getting that experience and knowledge. But of course we don’t know how it’s going to turn out in ten years.” And that may turn, in the end, on decisions in which Vienna has very little say. — Fergus Peace
(Picture credit: Flickr/Josh Zakary)