by Leonardo Schiocchet, Mirian Alves de Souza, and Helena Manfrinato
Recent data from the World Health Organization (WHO) (WHO n/a) shows Brazil as second in the ranking of the world most affected countries by the covid-19 pandemic, having surpassed 100.000 deaths in August 2020. This number is especially astonishing when considering that it is already larger than the number of immediate deaths caused by the Nagasaki atomic bomb explosion, and close to that of the highest estimates for the Hiroshima atomic bomb (Hiroshima Day Committee. n/a.). There is a consensus among health specialists and humanitarian representatives that in the case of Brazil, governmental responses are largely to be held accountable for the spread of the pandemic (OHHCR April 29, 2020). The Bolsonaro presidency has consistently downplayed social distancing measures calling them “scorched-earth” tactics, promoting instead the use of Hydroxychloroquine, which in turn has been scientifically considered inefficient and even dangerous as treatment for Covid-19 (Cavalcanti et al. July 23, 2020).
In 2018, Brazil became the world’s sixth largest recipient of request for asylum, with Venezuelans accounting for more than three quarters of all claims (61.600) (UNHCR, 2019). This new role as global refugee host has not yet been sufficient acknowledged by the literature on forced migration world-wide, and may appear contradictory to Bolsonaro’s strong and overt anti-minorities stance. As Patrícia Nabuco Martuscelli (2020) notes, the Brazilian legislation towards migration and asylum is “progressive”, since the asylum law (Law 9474/1997)
It is first and foremost important to understand that these laws are reminiscent of the governments of Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2003) and of those of the Workers Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT) (2003-2016). Moreover, the Bolsonaro presidency justifies the presence of Venezuelan refugees in the country as a marker of what it brands “Bolivarianism,” a conservative push in Latin America.
As Martuscelli (2020) explains, uncertainty, fear, and xenophobia are the refugees’ main concerns in their experience of the pandemic in Brazil and government responses to it. As non-citizens, they are more vulnerable to the Brazilian government responses to Covid-19 especially due to the closure of the countries’ borders and of important sectors of the Federal Police, and to the lack of access to emergency benefits. On March 11, 2020 the government halted all asylum deadlines and, on March 16, all immigration deadlines and the meetings of the National Committee for Refugees (CONARE) (Portaria Nº 2). In addition, since March 26, the government has published a series of decrees prohibiting the entrance of non-nationals in Brazil (such as Portaria Nº 47 and Portaria nº 255). Aimed at containing the Covid-19 pandemic, these decrees violate Human Rights and interfere with the Brazilian refugee and migration laws, denying the right to apply for asylum and suspending non-discrimination laws that safeguard the right for equal access to public services, including health and social assistance. Such decrees deny the protection against repatriation of refugee family members (guaranteed by the migration law) and the right to documentation, which was suspended by the partial closure of the Federal Police. After the opposition majority votes, and against its will, the government did issue a humble emergency benefit for vulnerable populations affected by the pandemic (Auxílio Emergencial do Governo Federal, popularly known as “corona voucher”). However, refugees were uncertain if they qualify for the benefit given their lack of access to documents and information.
Besides the latest groups of refugees, mostly of Venezuelan origin, there are significant groups of refugees from the Syrian conflict that arrived in Brazil during the PT years, including 3.326 registered Syrians, and 350 registered Palestinians, along with smaller numbers of Lebanese and Iraqis (Governo Federal 2019), although these numbers may be higher in practice. In addition, Brazil has around 3 to 4 million citizens of Syrian origin (alongside millions of Lebanese and Palestinians) that migrated to Brazil especially in the second half the Nineteenth Century and first half of the Twentieth Century (Lesser 2000; Karam 2009; Pinto 2010).
Refugees of the Syrian conflict in Brazil tend to be embedded in support networks led by the established Arab diaspora in Brazil and other Brazilian grassroots initiatives, as stated by the Brazilian specialists on refugees of the Syrian conflict, Mirian Alves de Souza and Helena Manfrinato, interviewed by Leonardo Schiocchet on August 14, 2020. There is no reliable data on how many refugees of the Syrian conflict actually contracted covid-19, with few cases reported among the community. Both Souza and Manfrinato agree that the most immediate consequence of the pandemic among refugees has been a devastating economic downfall.
Souza noted that Brazil applies different standards for the different nationalities among the refugees from the Syrian conflict, including Palestinians. The approval rate of Syrians is close to 100% and that of Palestinians is also very high. Yet Lebanese have a very small approval rate. According to Souza, the situation of refuges of the Syrian conflict in Brazil is “frightening”, given that they depend mostly on jobs in the food service industry, which came to almost a total halt in early 2020 owing to social distancing measures enforced by the government or observed by citizens on their own. Souza points out that in Rio de Janeiro, this business was overwhelmingly in the street food sector. This food is sold at very low prices, and the main consumers are members of the working class, who in general cannot afford to observe social distancing practices. Now that Brazilians are slowly returning to the streets in spite of the covid-19 pandemic the refugees’ situation is recovering slightly.
Manfrinato stated that in São Paulo, too, refugees of the Syrian conflict depend on the food service industry for a living. Yet most food used to be sold in restaurants owned by the refugees themselves. After the covid-19 outbreak, all their restaurants closed due to the lack of clients. A Syrian refugee, who sold food in the streets, created a delivery system in neighbourhoods where few people observed social distancing measures, especially quarantine. But his relative success stands out as rare. Besides, refugees were overwhelmingly unsuccessful in negotiating lowered rents for their shops and residences, and many of them now depend almost exclusively on emergency aid. What is more, racism and xenophobia associated with covid-19 have affected migrants at large.
Few refugees reported that they had access to federal emergency aid. Most of them are benefiting from grassroots efforts by the established Arab community or other Brazilian social movements. According to Manfrinato, one of the largest mosques in São Paulo launched a large operation to distribute food (cestas básicas), blankets and clothes to those in need, including, but not limited to, the refugees of the Syrian conflict. According to Souza, even the refugees themselves, being among the most affected population, started their own initiatives to distribute food to those in need in the streets of Rio de Janeiro. These initiatives (re)approximated the refugees’ grassroots social movement. In Rio, Simsim Culinária (led by a Syrian refugee) participated in Cozinha Solidária, a partnership between Junta Local (a network of small producers and local cooks, including refugees from various countries) and other collectives to distribute food (quentinha) to a favela.
Solidarity among these refugees and Brazilian social movements is not new, but as Manfrinato contends, the covid-19 outbreak led to a reorganization of solidarity, which was based at least as much on ideology and identity as on contextual approximations. For example, one of Manfrinato’s Palestinian interlocutors created an NGO called Refúgio Brasil. The NGO had started with a group of Palestinians helping Palestinian refugees from the Iraqi conflict. With the onset of the war in Syria, it quickly gained momentum and widened its scope, while still being fundamentally funded by the Palestinian community in Brazil. This NGO, as others, used a three-phase approach to their actions: Socorro (help, emergency), integração (integration) and consolidação (consolidation). The first phase is marked by emergency aid, especially food distribution and rent support. The second is focused on generating income and autonomy by offering intercultural courses geared towards the job market. The third and final phase is accomplished by finding jobs for the refugees and maintaining professional psychological support. This NGO was very successful in creating partnerships with other Brazilian social movements and local business. However, the covid-19 outbreak caused most refugees to lose their jobs and residences. It had a devastating effect on these established networks, as it forced all social actions back to the first, emergency phase. According to Manfrinato, this example illustrates well what happened to all other grassroot initiatives in which the refugees and the Arab community were involved.
Both Souza and Manfrinato emphasize that it is equally important to note other effects of the covid-19 outbreak, which are likely to have long-lasting repercussions. The Brazilian scholars corroborate Martuscelli’s point that access to public health care (SUS) poses a problem for refugees. While this access is in theory universal and independent of citizenship, in practice racism and xenophobia occur among the staff of hospitals and health centers. Souza and Manfrinato concur that anxiety and anguish in the face of incertitude have deeply marked the refugee community in question.
In conclusion, the covid-19 outbreak precipitated and strengthened serious economic difficulties, difficult access to basic services such as official records and health care, racism and xenophobia, and the reinforcement of the community’s isolation vis-à-vis others in Brazil and their own families abroad. This, in turn, has a negative impact on the psychosocial outlook of this refugee population. Refugees in general are affected by enforced immobility. The refugees in Brazil are confronted with this problem to an aggravated degree. And while the pandemic led to the emergence and restructuring of important forms of solidarity among refugees of the Syrian conflict, it also significantly restricted others.
Apart from Martuscelli’s recent publication (2020) and the ongoing work by Souza and Manfrinato, very few other studies of the refugees’ experiences during the pandemic in Brazil have been conducted (see for example, Caramuru 2020; Baeninger et al 2020). The facts presented in this blog suggest that the psychosocial and structural effects of the covid-19 pandemic are likely to be long-lasting. While it is necessary to study the current situation of medical emergency, quarantine and social distancing, studies tracking the long-term effects of the so-called “new normality” on social organization are equally pressing.
 Venezuela’s official name is República Bolivariana de Venezuela.
 In September 2020, the government announced that the emergency benefit will be cut in half, despite the increasingly deteriorating economic situation of the country.
Baeninger, Rosana; Vedovato, Luís Renato; Nandy, Shailen (eds). 2020. Migrações Internacionais e a Pandemia da Covid-19. Universidade de Campinas.
Caramuru. Bárbara. 2020. Palestinos migrantes e refugiados e as políticas de "fechamento de fronteiras" na Pandemia da Covid-19. Cadernos de Campo, Vol 19, pp. 278-288.
Cavalcanti, Alexandre B. et al. July 23, 2020. Hydroxychloroquine with or without Azithromycin in Mild-to-Moderate Covid-19. The New England Journal of Medicine. DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa2019014. https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa2019014. Accessed on August 15, 2020.
Governo Federal: Ministério da Justiça e Segurança Pública. 2019. Refúgio em Númros, Quarta Edição. Official Report. https://www.justica.gov.br/seus-direitos/refugio/refugio-em-numeros. Accessed on August 16, 2020.
Hiroshima Day Committee. n/a. Hiroshima and Nagasaki Bombing: Facts about the Atomic Bomb. http://www.hiroshimacommittee.org/Facts_NagasakiAndHiroshimaBombing.htm. Accessed on August 15, 2020.
Karam, John Tofik. 2009. Um Outro Arabesco: Etnicidade Sírio-libanesa no Brasil Neoliberal. São Paulo: Martins Fontes.
Lei Nº 9.474, De 22 De Julho De 1997. 1997. Define mecanismos para a implementação do Estatuto dos Refugiados de 1951, e determina outras providências. Brasília, DF. http://www.planalto.gov.br/ccivil_03/leis/l9474.htm. Accessed on August 15, 2020.
Lei Nº 13.445, De 24 De Maio De 2017. 2017. Institui a Lei de Migração. Brasília, DF. http://www.planalto.gov.br/ccivil_03/_ato2015-2018/2017/lei/l13445.html. Accessed on August 15, 2020.
Lesser, Jeffrey. 2000. A Negociação da Identidade Nacional. São Paulo: Editora da UNESP.
Martuscelli, Patrícia Nabuco. 2020. Como refugiados são afetados pelas respostas brasileiras ao COVID-19?. Revista de Administração Pública, Rio de Janeiro. http://bibliotecadigital.fgv.br/ojs/index.php/rap/article/view/81773/77971. Accessed on August 15, 2020.
OHHCR (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights). April 29, 2020. COVID-19: Brazil's irresponsible economic and social policies put millions of lives at risk, UN experts say. https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=25842&LangID=E. Accessed on August 15, 2020.
Pinto, Paulo G.H. 2010. Árabes No Rio De Janeiro: Uma Identidade Plural. Ruo de Janeiro: Editora Cidade Viva.
Portaria Nº 2, De 20 De Março De 2020. 2020. Dispõe sobre a suspensão dos atendimentos presenciais, dos prazos processuais e das reuniões do Comitê Nacional para os Refugiados, de que trata a Lei nº 9.474, de 22 de julho de 1997. Brasília, DF. http://www.in.gov.br/en/web/dou/-/portaria-n-2-de-20-de-marco-de-2020-249674366. Accessed on August 15, 2020.
Portaria Nº 255, De 22 De Maio De 2020. 2020. Dispõe sobre a restrição excepcional e temporária de entrada no País de estrangeiros, de qualquer nacionalidade, conforme recomendação da Agência Nacional de Vigilância Sanitária - Anvisa. Brasília, DF. http://www.in.gov.br/en/web/dou/-/portaria-n-255-de-22-de-maio-de-2020-258114133. Accessed on August 15, 2020.
UNHCR. 2019. Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2018. https://www.unhcr.org/statistics/unhcrstats/5d08d7ee7/unhcr-global-trends-2018.html. Accessed on August 15, 2020.
WHO. August 15, 2020. WHO Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Dashboard. https://covid19.who.int/?gclid=CjwKCAjwj975BRBUEiwA4whRB7-Dv1CprVOZBN_Jj-DxS3_YH613XmlBTv_HpYFS3-Pjw0UPB8V-hxoCnkYQAvD_BwE. Accessed on August 15, 2020.
by Leonardo Schiocchet
In Lebanon today, the livelihoods of Palestine refugees and refugees of the Syrian conflict are largely intertwined. Palestinian forced migration is one of the largest, oldest and most protracted cases in the world. Especially for those living in one of the dozens of refugee camps in the Near East today, forced mobility (having to leave one’s land) became quickly enforced immobility (as they have been kept in refugee camps for around 70 years), as Anne Irfan suggests (May 12, 2020). The protracted situation of Palestinian refugees means that they have been immersed in regional contexts for decades. The Syrian war greatly affected more than half a million Palestinian refugees in Syria (UNRWA n/d a), many of whom managed to move especially to Lebanon or Jordan. The current Lebanese political and financial crisis has therefore equally affected Lebanon’s displaced from the Syrian war. Access to Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon varies. While some have been largely closed to non-Palestinian refugees, others have been quite open. This can be attributed to various degrees of external control. The physical boundaries of some camps (like ‘Ayn el-Helweh) are controlled by Lebanese army checkpoints, in others these boundaries are self-managed by Palestinian factions (like Wavel [Al-Jalil]), while access to others is largely uncontrolled, as it is most notably the case with Shatila.
Shatila is located in the south of Beirut, where most of the internally displaced from the south of Lebanon moved during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) - a majoritarian Shi’a population today much aligned with Hizbollah. Since the infamous Sabra and Shatila massacre of 1982, the Palestinians de facto lost control of the camp and its boundaries became increasingly porous. The camp was largely absorbed by the urbs of Beirut, and while it is symbolic territory for most Palestinian (Schiocchet 2016), it presently harbours a very diverse population composed of around 10.000 registered Palestinian refugees (UNRWA n/d a); poor Lebanese citizens of all confessions; a myriad of illegalized workers (Filipino who arrived as maids, Sri Lankans who arrived to work as garbage collectors, etc.); and refugees, most notably from the Syrian conflict. Around 120.000 Palestine refugees left Syria for its neighbouring countries (UNRWA n/d b) as part of the 884,266 registered refugees1 from the Syrian conflict that are living today in Lebanon, a significant number of them (Palestinian or not) ending up in Shatila (UNHCR, June 30, 2020) or in the Beka’ Valley2 .
In October 2019, Lebanon was hit by a political crisis that turned the country into turmoil. Protesters blocked the most important roads in the country in a bid to force the government to resign, which caused economic life to grind to a halt, affecting the most vulnerable populations, including refugees. The global Covid-19 outbreak in early 2020 affected Lebanon relatively less than many other countries in the region. However, there are no reliable numbers, especially when it comes to such densely populated and loosely controlled refugee camps as Shatila. The response to the Covid-19 outbreak, however, deepened the economic crisis, which quickly escalated to become the worst since the country’s independence in 1943. As a study by the Euro-Mediterranean Study Commission (EuroMeSCo) suggests (June 2020), it is expected that poverty will rise to 45% or more of the population by the end of 2020, with extreme (food) poverty more than doubling to 22% of the population. The GPD is expected to fall by 15% and unemployment rates should hit 50%.
Many external observers praised the Lebanese government policies to curb the spread of Covid-19 through curfews and movement restrictions. In reality, however, the Lebanese government used this opportunity to remove the protesters’ bases in the largest cities. Government actions, coupled with some of the protesters’ fear of the pandemic led to the temporary demobilization of the Hirak (Arabic, “mobility”) social movement. Meanwhile, established elites linked to the government filled the gap left by the protesters and by the insufficient state health policies, often offering aid and thus strengthening clientelism and the grip of the status quo. In Shatila, the efforts of the United Nations Refugee Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and the UNHCR were severely hampered by lack of funds. While Hirak has regained some momentum in the last few months, the explosion in the port of Beirut (August 4, 2020) brought a vast number of protesters back to the streets, with a high increase in the numbers of those willing to resort to more confrontational actions such as erecting burning street barricades in response to the violent state response.
As Irfan suggests, “Imposing immobility” has been a basic tenet of many national governments in response to the Covid-19 outbreak. But the “twin pillars of social distancing” - keep people indoors and keep them apart – can be mutually exclusive, for in most refugee camps staying put means staying in an overcrowded, often unsanitary, environment (May 12, 2020). My own fieldwork (intermittently, from 2006 to the present) corroborates the impossibility of social distancing policies. In Shatila, refugee aid is not nearly sufficient to keep people indoors, so they have to scrap a living day-by-day through informal work such as vegetable vendor (inside the camp) or day labour construction worker (outside the camp). If imposing immobility in Shatila is not an effective answer to combat Covid-19 in Shatila, we have to look elsewhere.
When I asked one refugee if the Covid-19 crisis had hit Shatila hard he answered: “I think so, but not officially” (…) “people are not caring about it. Shatila and Sabra always were crazy. They never cared. Actually, I have been in quarantine now for 14 days. My sister has it” . To put the conversation in context, the situation in Shatila is so dire that curbing the spread of Covid-19 in the camp is not necessarily a priority from the point of view of many residents, much contrary to the perspective of many in the Global North. The pandemic hit Lebanon during the recent political and economic turmoil, and for many Shatila residents, putting food on the table, or dealing with quotidian symbolic and physical violence take precedence. There are pockets of grassroots actions against the pandemic. As Irfan contends (May 12, 2020), some refugees themselves are pioneering new initiatives to combat the virus through organizing the distribution of information and resources and donations of essential items to keep the community safe, and refugees must be seen as potential assets in the global combat against Covid-19. Yet, general instability and the lack of policies dedicated to refugee camps greatly curb such actions. The muted reaction to the Covid-19 pandemic in Shatila is significantly due to the government’s lack of support for their non-citizen population (one of the largest in the world) and further subdued by the current political and economic situation.
This situation is similar in Lebanon at large, and hot spots of Covid-19 may spread fast in the near future. Looking at the situation of the most vulnerable populations may shed light on how to deal with what the EuroMeSCo (June 2020) called, in the case of Lebanon, a “crisis within a crisis”. Within this context, it is also logical that the scant responses (both by the Lebanese government and by grassroot initiatives) may be even more pronounced in Shatila among refugees from the Syrian conflict who, having moved to the camp only in the last few years, lack the necessary social and economic support, including networks of clientelism (epitomized by the figure of the wasta) that are vital for survival especially among vulnerable populations in Lebanon.
1. These numbers have been largely stable since 2016. However, it is estimated that the actual number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon is around 1.5 million (EuroMeSCo, June 2020).
2. There are no reliable references as to how many refugees of the Syrian conflict inhabit Shatila. Based on his intermittent ethnographic fieldwork between 2011 and 2020, and constant contact with residents, Schiocchet estimates that 3.000 refugees would be conservative numbers.
EuroMeSCo (the Euro-Mediterranean Study Commission). June 2020. The Socioeconomic Impact of COVID-19 on Lebanon: A Crisis Within Crises. https://www.euromesco.net/publication/the-socioeconomic-impact-of-covid-19-on-lebanon-a-crisis-within-crises/. Accessed on August 14, 2020.
Irfan, Anne. May 12, 2020. Covid-19 in the Palestinian Refugee Camps. Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford. Https://Www.Rsc.Ox.Ac.Uk/Covid-19-Resources/Covid-19-Blog/Covid-19-In-The-Palestinian-Refugee-Camps?Fbclid=Iwar2pqcmmkk8ccm3hp3qvngzfvbg0_X0qfybuyvln4dz7lyy9swd_Oqsipws. Accessed on August 14, 2020.
UNHCR. June 30, 2020. Syria Regional Refugee Response: Lebanon. https://data2.unhcr.org/en/situations/syria/location/71. Accessed on August 14, 2020.
UNRWA. n/d a. Where we work: Syria. https://www.unrwa.org/where-we-work/syria. Accessed on August 14, 2020.
UNRWA. n/d b. Where we work: Lebanon: Shatila. https://www.unrwa.org/where-we-work/lebanon/shatila-camp
Schiocchet, Leonardo. 2016. On the Brink of a State of Exception? Austria, Europe, and the Refugee Crisis. Critique and Humanism. Vol. 46, no. 2 (2016): 211-248.
“The Ideal Austrian” vs. “the Refugee”: The Construction of Collective Identities in the “Values and Orientation Courses”
By Hannah Myott and Mina Vasileva (Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Vienna)
Numerous countries in Europe have “integration” requirements for refugees who have recently arrived, although these programs vary greatly. Many integration policies build on a foundational premise about essentialized identities of host societies (“us”) and newcomers (“them”), which is an integrationist logic that we seek to problematize. In the Austrian case, one element of this logic is the discourse of “fundamental values” which suggests that native Austrians “have” something that incoming refugees lack. In the following, we investigate this topic and its underlying assumptions by drawing from fieldwork that was conducted between October 2018 and March 2019 and focused on one of Austria’s integration requirements, the so-called “values and orientation courses” (Werte- und Orientierungskurse) for refugees.
What are the Values and Orientation Courses?
The idea of communicating Austrian Grundwerte (fundamental values) to those entitled to asylum and subsidiary protection goes back to 2010, when the first National Action Plan for Integration (NAP.I) was adopted. Even more than that, like the other seven Handlungsfelder (fields of action), the area Rechtsstaat und Werte (rule of law and values), which laid the foundation for the classes, was already developed in 2008/2009 (BMEIA National Action Plan for Integration). It then took until 2015 for the “50-Point Plan” (50 Action Points: A Plan for the Integration of Persons entitled to Asylum or Subsidiary Protection in Austria) to be officially put together by Heinz Faßmann and an expert council under the mandate of Sebastian Kurz, then Minister of Integration. This publication was the first that BMEIA brought out to explicitly target the integration process of refugees in Austria. The “Rule of Law and Values” section originally elaborated the idea for a “course format, specifically designed for [the] initial orientation purposes (..) [of] persons entitled to asylum or subsidiary protection [giving] a good overview of life in Austria and the fundamental values governing coexistence” (2015: 14).
The 50-Point Plan formed the basis for the values and orientation courses, which are mandated in the “Integration Act” of 2017. According to the Integration Act, “the values and orientation courses must teach participants about the democratic system and the fundamental principles derivable from it (fundamental values of the legal and social systems), and about the rules of peaceful coexistence” (Integration Act 2017: §5.3). They are carried out by the Austrian Integration Fund (Österreichischer Integrationsfonds, or ÖIF) and are organized as one single eight-hour session guided by aninstructor and an interpreter. According to the official training document My Life in Austria: Opportunities and Rules, the curriculum of the courses is set up to start with History and Its Effects on Present-Day Austria, then proceed to Language and Education, Labor Market and Economy, Healthcare, Housing and Good Neighborliness, Legal Integration, and Cultural Integration (BMEIA/ÖIF 2016: 86).
The course begins with Austria’s geography and history starting from Franz Joseph onwards, addressing topics such as Maria Theresia, both world wars, and antisemitism. The topics of school and work are then presented, followed by the constitutional state, media/press, equality, and democracy. This is followed by a section on duties, which mainly includes explaining the solidarity principle, taxes, and what kinds of social security they ensure. The curriculum then turns to how participants can—and why they should—learn German on their own. Health-related topics are also raised, where participants are taught what an e-card is and how it works. This is followed by rules for good cohabitation such as waste disposal, privacy, legal rest hours, nighttime periods, and the avoidance of noise nuisance. The last part of the curriculum deals with intercultural competencies. This includes an exercise in which participants must decide whether certain pictures represent something that is legally permitted in Austria, socially accepted, none, or both.
While the stated goal of the Federal Act and the courses contained therein is to “quickly integrate persons who are legally resident in Austria into Austrian society” (Integration Act 2017: §1.1), the reality is that refugees may only attend the course after receiving their legal asylum in Austria—a process that in some cases takes years. This highlights the symbolic nature of the courses and begs the question why they hold such a prominent position in recent integration measures.
Construction of “the Austrian” Identity
The course curriculum constructs and communicates an essentialized “Austrianness,” which we refer to as “the ideal Austrian.” This ideal citizen is perfect; they never cross the street when the light is red, they are extremely neighborly, and they go through life with a sense of solidarity with their fellow citizens. To illustrate this ideal Austrian, the values and orientation course’s accompanying booklet, My Life in Austria: Opportunities and Rules (BMEIA/ÖIF 2016), features photo examples with captions about Austrian society/behavior underneath. One photo features a woman wearing a high-visibility jacket and a hard hat, stating: “Technical professions and management positions are open to both women and men” (ibid.: 100). Another shows two women talking and smiling, with the caption: “Neighbours often talk to one another and help each other” (ibid.: 117). And, under a photo that shows a businesswoman standing and explaining something to three employees at a computer, the caption says: “In the labour market, as in all other areas of life in Austria, women have the same rights as men” (ibid.: 104).
This ideal Austrian lives in a utopic version of Austria as well, where gender inequality does not exist. The fact that Austria is ranked relatively low on the Global Gender Gap report compared to other countries in the Global North (WE Forum 2017) does not play a role in this version of Austria. Without presuming to understand the motivation behind representing Austrians in such a way, it is clear that it is at best oversimplified and at worst misleading. The construction and communication of this idealized character reinforces an imagined collective national identity that serves as an example for refugees and situates two essentialized, collective identities against one another: “the Austrians” and “the refugees.” These contrastive identities are reminiscent of Said's concept of Orientalism, which defines Europe as the Orient's “contrasting image, idea, personality, experience” (1978: 9f). Likewise, Austrianness is developed in contrast to its “others,” in this case, “refugees.” These essentialized identities fit into the “powerful regime of classification, an apparently commonsensical system of ordering and sorting people into national kinds and types” brought to light by Liisa Malkki (1995: 6). She problematizes the widespread universalization of “the refugee” and “the nation,” categories that continue to exist in today’s “national order of things”. In the case of the values and orientation courses, defining “the Austrian” in such stark terms within this system of classification and categorization implicitly produces and reproduces constructed images of not only a homogenized Austrian identity, but also the refugees’ identity.
Construction of “the Refugee” Identity
In general, refugees are portrayed as deficient—they have to take the courses because they lack basic Austrian values. They are imagined as a homogeneous group characterized by being Muslim, non-secular, antisemitic, homophobic, and not respecting women’s rights. All these ascribed qualities create a group of external “others” whose integration into Austrian society seems difficult or even unachievable.
Part of the problem in identifying these issues is that this characterization is rarely explicit. It is implied through comparison and an overemphasis on “Austrian fundamental values.” The implication of this is that this characterization is difficult to “prove,” allowing it to pervade without too much controversy. Some markers of these pervasive understandings about the collective “otherness” of refugees include implicit or explicit comments that take for granted a common acceptance of these assumptions. For example, during our meeting with a representative of an Austrian ministry who is involved with integration programs, it was mentioned how the curriculum is especially designed for refugees and that he would not lecture American, Canadian, or German migrants on (gender) equality. Not only is this a very generalized assumption for a highly diverse group of people, but it also perpetuates the narrative of a progressive, perfectly gender equal “western world” versus a patriarchal, backwards Middle Eastern one—“the West” versus “the Orient,” as Said puts it (1978).
Similarly, in our interview with a member of the “team of experts” who formed the “50-Point Plan,” assumptions about patriarchy, modernism, and gender roles of migrants came to light. This member referred to migrants as harboring a “traditional patriarchal sort of thinking,” which was seen in Austria in the 1960s and 70s. This modernism—seeing societal progress as a linear development, for which a country like Austria is “ahead” of a country like Syria—although well-meaning, displays a subliminal understanding that homogenizes refugees into one “patriarchal” category. Likewise, our interview with a values and orientation course instructor uncovered the assumption that refugees are not used to women working, another homogenizing assumption that puts all refugees in one “basket,” so to speak. Finally, the structure and curriculum of the courses were presented to us in a workshop for “MultiplikatorInnen.” In this workshop, subtle comments and emphases, including topics such as antisemitism, women’s independence, and the importance of keeping religion private, as well as side comments such as “you can’t just go around swearing at people,” display the underlying culturist (Schinkel 2017), civilizationist (Brubaker 2017), integrationist (Meissner and Heil 2020) assumptions at the base of the courses: Refugees—especially Muslim refugees—have a cultural deficiency that makes their values incompatible with Austrian ones. They must be trained how to be more “Austrian” in order to coexist peacefully.
Many recent policies in countries in Europe and beyond share a common grounding in identitarian civilizationism, or “construing the opposition between self and other not in narrowly national but in broader civilizational terms” (Brubaker 2017: 3). This is one manifestation of an “us” versus “them” rhetoric often used in relation to an imagined Muslim other. Similar to this concept of “civilizationism,” the values and orientation courses place emphasis on the concepts of secularism and liberalism. Both of these categories are activated through their placement against Muslims, who are thus portrayed as the opposite and therefore a potential threat to liberal and secular values such as gay rights, women, Jews, and freedom of speech.
In order to legitimize Muslims’ position as “the other,” the religion itself must be instead viewed as a kind of culture (Karagiannis and Randeria 2016). Emphasizing the civilizational threat of Islam and the cultural identity of Christianity allows increasingly restrictive integration policies to exist and gain popularity without drawing accusations of religious discrimination. It can even simultaneously highlight secularism as a sign of progressive “Western” society, as evident in the Austrian values and orientation courses.
In this regard, the problem is not that the values and orientation courses bring up women’s rights, LGBTQI rights, freedom of speech, or nonviolence, but that they construct them as an exclusive attribute of the “we-group” that “the others” must learn.
The problem of the values and orientation courses appears to be twofold. First, they create and promote homogeneous, sacrosanct, rigid values that do not include or even ignore real challenges faced by Austrian society, such as racism, sexism, or the rise of right-wing politics. On the other hand, they also implicitly produce and reproduce constructed images of the refugees’ identity by placing them against this “ideal Austrian,” thus representing them as non-Austrian and therefore deficient. This is a manifestation of the “us” versus “them” rhetoric in relation to Europe’s imagined Muslim other, which frames Islam in cultural terms and therefore constructs a civilizational threat. As opposed to nationalism alone, the process seen here could be understood as Brubaker’s “civilizationism” (2017).
The values and orientation courses are portrayed as providing an “overview of life in Austria and the fundamental values governing coexistence” (BMEIA 2015: 14), but this disregards several realities. First, most of the course participants have already been in Europe and Austria for a longer period before they are granted asylum and allowed to take the courses. Additionally, according to recent interviews, more information about Austrian life can often be gained from individual interactions and personal connections rather than institutional, mandated courses. 
In conclusion, the courses promote “fundamental,” “non-negotiable,” “shared values” as if they were natural and neutral. Despite the intention to “enable persons to participate in social, economic and cultural life in Austria” (Integration Act 2017 §2.2), integration measures such as the values courses often lean on essentialized ideas about national identity. The values and orientation course curriculum constructs and communicates an optimal, essentialized “ideal Austrian” by communicating “what Austrians do.” Simultaneously, they exclude contradictory perspectives and ban refugees themselves from influencing the discourse. In fact, no refugees were consulted or included in the team of experts who organized the curriculum. This way, the courses become a selective, hierarchical, hegemonic interpretation of who and how Austrians are and what refugees “are to learn what society expects from them and what is not negotiable in order to enable peaceful coexistence of all people in Austria” (50 Action Points 2015: 15).
 Although the term “integration” is still used commonly in policies and even in migration studies, we would like to note that we do not accept the term “integration” at face value, given its problematic underlying logics. Although there is not the space to discuss it in depth here, see e.g. Meissner and Heil 2020, Rytter 2019, Schinkel 2018, and Korteweg 2017 for discussions about this topic.
 Members of a far-right ideology in Austria (Identitäre Bewegung Österreich or IBO) and several other European countries actually call themselves “identitarians,” referring to a similar logic studied here (albeit in explicit ethno-nationalist terms rather than seemingly neutral ones). Our thanks to Prof. Ayse Caglar for pointing this out.
 See Hannah Myott’s MA thesis (forthcoming; 2020).
Brubaker, Rogers. 2017. “Between nationalism and civilizationism: the European populist moment in comparative perspective.” Ethnic and Racial Studies, 2017.
BMEIA. 2015. 50 Action Points: A Plan for the Integration of Persons entitled to Asylum or Subsidiary Protection in Austria. https://www.bmeia.gv.at/fileadmin/user_upload/Zentrale/Integration/Publikationen/Integrationsplan_ final_EN.pdf (30.03.19 - 01:42)
BMEIA NAP.I National Action Plan for Integration. https://www.bmeia.gv.at/en/integration/national-action-plan/ (30.03.19 – 18:36)
BMEIA/ÖIF. 2016. My Life in Austria: Opportunities and Rules. https://www.bmeia.gv.at/fileadmin/user_upload/Zentrale/Integration/Zusammenleben/Wertebroschu ere_Lernunterlage_de_en_Web.pdf (30.03.19 - 23:01)
Federal Act for the Integration of Persons without Austrian Nationality Legally Resident in Austria (Integration Act). 2017. https://www.ris.bka.gv.at/Dokument.wxe?Abfrage= Erv&Dokumentnummer= ERV_2017_1_68_a.
Kariagannis, E. and R. Shalini. 2016. “Zwischen Begeisterung und Unbehagen: Ein anthropologischer Blick auf den Begriff der Kultur.” In: S. De La Rosa, S. Schubert, and Z. Holger (eds.) Transkulturelle Politische Theorie: Eine Einführung. Wiesbaden: Springer Fachmedien. 63-83.
Korteweg, Anna C. 2017. “The Failures of ‘Immigrant Integration’: The Gendered Racialized Production of Non-Belonging.” Migration Studies 5(3): 428-444
Meissner, Fran, and Tilmann Heil. 2020. “Deromanticising Integration: On the Importance of Convivial Disintegration.” Migration Studies, February. https://doi.org/10.1093/migration/mnz056.
World Economic Forum. 2017. The Global Gender Gap Report 2017. Cologne/Geneva: WE Forum. https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-gender-gap-report-2017.
Rytter, Mikkel. 2019. “Writing Against Integration: Danish Imaginaries of Culture, Race and Belonging.” Ethnos 84(4): 678-697.
Schinkel, Willem. 2017. “Transformations of Racism and the Rise of Culturism.” Chapter. In Imagined Societies: A Critique of Immigrant Integration in Western Europe, 112–55. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Schinkel, Willem. 2018. “Against ‘Immigrant Integration’: For an End to Neocolonial Knowledge Production.” Comparative Migration Studies 6(31).