by Monika Mokre
Integration (or the lack thereof) certainly is a buzzword in public discourses on refugees. It is frequently understood as a form of assimilation, that is, the obligation of refugees and migrants to adapt to the values and culture of the receiving country. Contrary to this, the Austrian National Action Plan (NAP) defines “integration as a two-way process, which is shaped by mutual appreciation and respect, whereas clear rules secure social cohesion and peace. (…) An integrated society is characterized by social permeability and openness. Such a society allows individuals to shape their lives self-dependently, without being discriminated based on their origin, language or skin colour. Integration aims at participation in economic, social, political and cultural processes as well as compliance with related obligations.” .
Against this background, it is important to ask how refugees can design their lives in Austria, how can they integrate and be integrated in Austrian society. In my contribution to the book entitled “From Destination to Integration – Afghan, Syrian and Iraqi Refugees in Vienna”, I analyzed interviews with refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria from the following viewpoints:
Knowledge of one’s own legal situation
Statements on one’s own legal situation could be found in nearly all interviews, related either to the actual situation or to descriptions of first experiences in Austria. More than 25% of the interviewees made statements showing that they have or had insufficient knowledge about their legal situation. The first experiences in Austria are frequently described as extremely confusing and traumatizing. But, also, legal procedures are unclear and, obviously, in many cases not explained to the applicants.
“I have been here for about 7 months, and *-* till now there is no paper and no information about me, I am waiting, I mean.” (Sy18)
This situation of confusion can lead to rather far-fetched ideas on the asylum system in Austria.
S10: “In the meantime, two sons have arrived in Austria. They already got asylum. But I did not, as yet. I do not know why. (…) I think they take the young people, not the old people. (…) The old ones, are *-* beyond the expiration date, I think.“ (S10)
On the other hand, one has also to mention that nearly 30% have very good knowledge about their legal situation. This includes people in the asylum procedure and people who already passed the procedure and have now the right to stay in Austria. A few interviewees also mention that they help their fellow country people with bureaucratic questions.
Struggling with Bureaucracy
Knowledge about one’s own legal situation is only a part of the information necessary to create a new life in a new country. In the precarious situation of seeking asylum, a wide range of support measures are needed in order for the asylum seekers to find their position in society and to be able – at least in the mid-range – to live an autonomous life. This begins with legal procedures to get asylum but also includes lodgings and access to education and/ or work.
Overall, the interviewees took a rather skeptical stance on Austrian institutions and organizations. For those in the asylum procedure and, especially, those who have been in this situation for a long time, this procedure poses the most serious problem. And, also, lack of respect in the procedure is mentioned by the interviewees.
“Yeah, for the people they didn’t know, they know about your number, you are a number for them, you are a refugee. He didn’t look about your background from where you are coming, from which kind of society, from which level of education (…).” (S13)
But even after a positive outcome of the asylum procedure, many bureaucratic problems remain, above all for people who are not granted asylum but receive subsidiary protection or a humanitarian title.. Frequently, they feel subjected to arbitrary treatment by individual officials.
Several further issues play an important role for the ability of refugees to integrate into society. In the interviews, we can find detailed descriptions of the bad conditions at arrival and in provisional camps – especially in the summer and fall of 2015, the time of a huge influx of refugees for which Austria had not prepared beforehand. But also apart from the rather extreme situation in overcrowded and, partly, provisional camps, the interviews show that conditions are frequently not satisfying with regard to food, clothing, German courses, and internet connection.
Trust in the State
Interestingly, the interviewees see the Austrian state in general in a much more positive way than the concrete institutions and organizations they are dealing with. It seems that many refugees have kept their trust in a democratic state and rule of law in spite of their own, frequently negative experiences with procedures, institutions or organizations. Above all, the interviewees emphasize their trust in the rule of law.
“All people are treated equally here, irrespective of where they come from. Everybody has the same rights and duties. A country where human rights are respected and applied. I really have to say, this country deserves my full respect.” (I2)
Furthermore, the vast majority of the interviewees has a positive image of Austria and its population – in fact, the image is much more positive than the one of the state and its institutions. Probably, these very positive assessments of Austria are related to the fact that many of the interviewed refugees arrived during the period of the so-called welcome culture and were interviewed shortly after this time. The interviewers explicitly asked for an assessment of the open, liberal, and multi-cultural character of Austrian society – and the answers to that were unanimously positive.
What Will the Future Bring?
The interviews were also evaluated with regard to the expectations of the interviewees for their future. However, there was no explicit question on this issue; people were asked about their hopes for the future but not about concrete expectations. Thus, the number of positive, negative, or ambiguous responses was rather low.
Expectations for the future are mostly related to the present situation. Several interviewees with positive expectations are already working or studying or have concrete plans in this regard. Negative expectations frequently derive from a lack in legal security, e.g. in the case of one interviewee with the (very insecure) status of toleration. Ambiguous statements on the future result from a combination of hopes for one’s own career with fears for the family in the country of origin or, conversely, hopes for the children in Austria but an expected career disappointment for the interviewee himself.
This analysis of the interviews has to be treated with caution for several reasons. For one thing, it is based on a pilot study with a limited number of interviewees and no refined sampling procedure. Secondly, it partly deals with issues that were not at the core of the interviews.
However, even if the analysis is not representative it shows some crucial problems of the Austrian asylum system that need to be addressed. Out of everyday mainstream discourse one might conclude that growing fears and xenophobia of the Austrian population pose a major problem to refugees. However, at least at the time of the interviews, Austria and its population were mainly seen in a very positive light. The main problems refugees faced were related to the way in which their legal status and their life were organized by state institutions and state-related agencies. Thus, it is obviously necessary to improve these structures and procedures. Everybody has the right to be informed about his/her rights and there have to be clear-cut procedures known and intelligible to everybody concerned. In the case of asylum seekers dependent on public services, this requirement applies not only to their legal status but also to their right to welfare, education, and work. Social cohesion can only be upheld and further developed when newly arriving people have the opportunity to live an autonomous life as soon as possible.
 BMEIA n/d:. Nationaler Aktionsplan für Integration. (https://www.bmeia.gv.at/fileadmin/user_upload/Zentrale/Integration/NAP/Bericht_zum_Nationalen_Aktionsplan.pdf)
 Kohlbacher, J./ Schiocchet, L. (Eds.) (2017), From Destination to Integration – Afghan, Syrian and Iraqi Refugees in Vienna. ISR Forschungsbericht Heft 45, Institut für Stadt- und Regionalforschung. Wien: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, pp. 145-166.