• Analysis
  • November 30, 2018
  • 10 minutes
  • 1

Austria’s rural programs are integrating migrants — but can the gains last?

Central government restrictions make it hard for local groups to keep small towns open

When Wilhelm Seufer-Wasserthal, former spokesman for a migrant integration program in rural upper Austria, introduced his work at a community gathering, he got a frank question thrown back at him: “Must you really do that?”.

Seufer-Wasserthal and his team — their program was known as regional-interkulturell.kompetent (RIKK) — had been talking to both Austrians with deep roots in the area and migrants to help better draw the latter into local community life. But many locals were reluctant to help.

“I was speechless,” said Seufer-Wasserthal, who, for his day job, leads the Maximilenhaus education centre in Linz. “But then, after that started to happen to us more often, I started to answer, ‘yes: because of you’.”

As mass migration continues to occupy governments all over the world, the question of how to help immigrants integrate into rural communities that aren’t used to them has reached a new level of urgency. In Austria, two programs have worked to solve the problem, and help migrants find a home in remote rural communities. But, despite their best efforts, are they enough to overcome local suspicions?

Rural future

Though the majority of migrants do end up in urban centres, many also find their way to rural towns and villages, whether through relocation policies or their own whims.

But it’s in rural areas where resistance to immigration is at its highest. Though an influx of young and working people is needed to help boost towns and villages with declining and ageing populations and traditional ways of living it can also be most difficult to convince people of the benefits of migration.

While it was the refugee crisis of 2015 which led to the biggest influx, immigrants have long been making their homes in rural Austria.

“There have always been groups of immigrants in these places,” said Hildegund Morgan, a project worker at Heimat=Sharing and integration worker in a rural region of Upper Austria.

But, despite this, too many found it difficult to properly enter community life: learn the language, find work, join clubs and societies. Few had tried to solve the problem, said Morgan.

“The problem is that, in Austria, there are political groups which perceive migration negatively, and which consider migrants [to be] criminals,” said Seufer-Wasserthal. “We wanted to take and promote a positive approach to migration — we also knew that we needed it, because we’re losing people due to internal migration.”

“It’s really astounding the level of welcoming the people have within them”

Operating in the neighbouring towns of Vöcklabruck and Gmunden in upper Austria, RIKK was formed in 2011 to liaise between communities and organisations in the area. In both towns, populations were declining rather than growing — without immigration, they’d suffer even more.

The aim of RIKK was to approach all those affected by migration, whether they were aware of it or not, and make them aware of their responsibility, but also their agency, to help the integration of migrant communities in their towns, workplaces and villages.

RIKK worked with communities to build “competence teams” — groups of professionals who were able to club together and help small companies, societies and schools understand how they could help integrate new arrivals. One team, for example, was a group of human resources professionals who advised local companies on how to deal with a multicultural workforce.

After approaching local government, Seufer-Wasserthal and his colleagues came up with the idea to build a targeted strategy for integration. Rather than leave each migrant to struggle by themselves to get a job, learn better German or navigate the school system, or, on the other side, each workplace to puzzle through how best to find skilled workers among migrants, the point was to find ways to get each side to understand the other.

“We always had a functional view,” said Seufer-Wasserthal. “What does a teacher need to do his job well, a kindergarten worker, a community leader?” In rural places where services are scarcer, migrant communities smaller and companies’ experiences with migrants rarer, such work helps to provide a way in.

RIKK works on different activities, from diversity projects in schools and language partnering, to teaching the HR departments of local employers how to deal with migrants. Funded by LEADER, the EU’s initiative for rural development at the grass-roots level, the aim throughout was to show that migration can and should be of benefit to newcomers and locals alike.

Cultural connection

This was the motivation behind a similar project in the region of Trauernviertel Alpenvorland, also in upper Austria. The point, for Morgan, again, was “to see migration as a chance”.

With Heimat=Sharing, Morgan and her team attempt to foster integration through working with the core of rural Austrian social life — its clubs and societies. “Clubs are important in Austria,” said Morgan. “Traditional ones, folk groups, musical societies, libraries — these people have a big standing in local places. Our idea from the start was to win these people to the project.”

Morgan liaised with local societies to engineer ways for them to include migrants, funded like RIKK by the EU’s LEADER program.

With the “living books” project in Sierning, migrants introduced locals to aspects of their background and culture over short conversations

For instance, with a project called “Living Books”, Heimat=Sharing partnered with Sierning library to conduct an exercise where migrants would introduce themselves and their background to locals. In others, groups of women from migrant communities joined traditional clubs to sew.

It was boosted by 2015’s refugee crisis. “In 2015 this was a huge theme, and it was actually the mayors who said they needed something to help cope,” said Morgan.

Austria established decentralised bodies in local communities to coordinate integration: Regionale Komepetenzzentren für Integration und Diversität, or REKIs. Through working with these, Morgan was able to promote Heimat=Sharing’s work, and coordinate with government.

Political reversal

Despite their successes, in recent years both feel that a chance to push on with the work may have been lost. In national elections in 2017, the far-right Freedom Party became the third largest party, and entered government. The interior minister has since declared it his aim to push the most “restrictive possible” asylum policy. It’s detracted from the successes of a few years ago.

“We’ve had such a shift to the right,” said Morgan. “Nowadays we don’t say, ‘look how much we achieved’, but people stick their heads in the sand, and those same mayors [who supported us] let go of integration like a hot potato”.

“Nowadays we don’t say, ‘look how much we achieved’, but people stick their heads in the sand”

For both, it’s important to remember that this isn’t a problem unique to Austria, but can happen anywhere where fear outweighs personal experience. For both, helping migrants to find a home in rural areas meant being proactive, learning to approach people and to engineer the meetings and interactions which otherwise wouldn’t happen.

“It’s really astounding the level of welcoming the people have within them, and what the structures of civil society can achieve”, said Morgan.

“Simply because Austria voted the way it did, it doesn’t follow that the people here are any different from anywhere else,” said Seufer-Wasserthal. “Of that I’m convinced. Austria elected these parties because of the kinds of fears that have very little to do with personal experience.” — Anoush Darabi

(Picture credit: Heimat=Sharing)

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