The Integration of Syrian Asylum Seekers in Austria in Light of Catholic Social Teaching
Pia Jolliffe (Las Casas Institute, University of Oxford & ROR-n)
The role of religion in conflict and peacebuilding is an established research area within the social sciences1. Faith-based organizations provide forced migrants around the world with humanitarian assistance and social services. Yet, in spite of this fact until the 2000s religious issues were largely ignored by academic research as well as in public debates about forced migration2. Since then studies of refugees and forced migrants increasingly revealed the intersection between religion, spirituality and forced migration. This body of research highlights the importance of religion as forced migrants renegotiate their identities within a continuum of migration, including internal displacement, life within and beyond refugee settlements in first countries of asylum or third countries of resettlement3 as well as the history and implications of various faith-based humanitarian responses to forced migration4.
The social teaching of the Catholic Church provides conceptual tools the analysis of the situation of asylum seekers and refugees around the world. In particular, the interrelated principals of the common good, of subsidiarity and of solidarity lend themselves to better understand the phenomenon of forced migration at different levels of society. The principal of the common good refers to the social and community dimension of the individual moral good. It indicates the sum total of social conditions, such as hospitality, education and care, which allow groups or individuals to flourish more fully and more easily. Those in government have a responsibility to defend and promote the common good5. At times, civil society needs to complement the State in the promotion of the common good. For example, in 2015, 24,720 people with Syrian citizenship applied for asylum in Austria6. The refugee camp in Traiskirchen (Lower Austria) was the first place where many registered and claimed asylum. The camp can shelter 1,800 people. However, on 1stAugust 2015, 4,500 people were living there in a precarious situation7. As a consequence, a range of local civil society initiatives sprung up to assist refugees and bridge between them and the Austrian population. Also different faith communities became active in delivering hospitality and basic care for those in need of protection. For example, in July 2015 during the Islamic month of fasting (“Ramadan”), the Islamic community in Traiskirchen organized after sunset daily meals for 2500 asylum seekers and refugees without asking for their religious affiliation8. It is important to bear in mind that “institutionalized networks of giving and receiving are also always structures of unequal distributions of power, structures well-designed both to mask and to protect those same distributions” and accordingly there “are always possibilities of victimization and exploitation bound up with participation in such networks9”. In this respect, Monika Moikre draws attention to the tensions and frictions that arose between the feminist and anti-racist engagement of Austrians who developed personal intimate relationships with refugees of different cultural and/or religious background10.
The basis of the principal of subsidiarity is that organizations of higher order should assist (“subsidium”) smaller organizations and societies of people: “Subsidiarity, understood in the positive sense as economic, institutional or juridical assistance offered to lesser social entities, entails a corresponding series of negative implications that require the State to refrain from anything that would de facto restrict the existential space of the smaller essential cells of society. Their initiative, freedom and responsibility must not be supplanted.”11 In regards to the protection needs of refugees and asylum seekers, the principal of subsidiarity may imply an expansion from the state-centred framework provided by the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees towards an approach to protection that incorporates refugees’ perspectives on their own needs and circumstances. Indeed, intersectionality of social categories shapes individual Syrian needs for different forms protection. Syrians not only differ in terms of their religious affiliation, but also in terms of their education, social status and political affiliations. Whether or not a man or a woman grew up in rural or urban parts of Syria often determines whether or not they had access to schooling. Whilst most men and women from urban areas are literate and often hold diplomas from institutions of higher education, those who come from rural areas – in particular women – arrived illiterate. Accordingly, these groups have different needs for their integration into Austrian society. For example, the Sovereign Military Order of Malta specializes on assisting highly skilled asylum seekers and refugees. Volunteers of the Order of Malta organize German language classes in cooperation with the St Ephrem Syrian-Orthodox church which has been in Vienna since 1974. The Syrian asylum seekers who are members of this community typically come from urban areas such as Damascus, Homs and Aleppo. They are often highly skilled and educated: most adult men and women hold university degrees in medical sciences or in engineering. If they want to work in Austria, e.g. as engineers and doctors, the recognition – ‘nostrification’ – of their Syrian degrees is necessary. In turn this process includes a language test to ascertain the applicant has mastered the specialist vocabulary for their professional field. In the long absence of such state-sponsored courses, local Maltese Order volunteers who are medical doctors or engineers regularly meet Syrian professionals for language training. They also seek placements to participate in local hospitals and clinics.
The principal of solidarity, emphasizes the interdependence between individuals and peoples at and across the micro, intermediate and macro levels of society. It is a moral and a social virtue because it marks a firm determination to commit oneself to the common good and is placed into the sphere of social justice. For example, across the Archdiocese of Vienna, the Roman Catholic organisation Caritas mediated between asylum seekers, refugees and parishes who were able to offer flats. The assignment of individuals or families to parishes was independent of asylum seekers’ religious affiliation: “If someone says he would only like to accommodate a Christian family, we answer that we cannot arrange that because peoples’ religious affiliation is first not being registered and second not a criterion for exclusion for us. We say, we want to help human beings, independent of their religious affiliation” (Interview, Caritas, 8 February 2016).
Thus faith-based organizations complement the Austrian State; sometimes they take on responsibilities hitherto attributed to the State. In doing so, they and other local initiatives bridge between asylum seekers, political elites and residents. Yet, there is a danger of volunteers exhausting themselves and feeling abandoned by politicians12. Therefore, in order to put the principalsof the common good, of subsidiarity and of solidarity into practice, it is necessary for those responsible for government to better understand how social diversity among Syrians affects individual asylum seekers’ and refugees’ needs for protection and humanitarian assistance, to support voluntary faith-based and other organisations and to publicly recognize their contributions to social cohesion within a fast changing society.
Acknowledgements: I am grateful to the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing for funding parts of this research between February and March 2016.
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6 Eurostat. (2016). ‘Asylum and first time asylum applicants by citizenship, age and sex Annual aggregated data (rounded)’, http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/File:Five_main_citizenships_of_%28non-EU%29_asylum_applicants,_2015_%28number_of_first_time_applicants,_rounded_figures%29_YB16.png
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11 Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.2012. Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. London and New York: Burnes & Oates, pp. 81-102.
12 Rosenberger, S. (2016). 'Freiwilligen-Organisationen als Integrationsmotoren' Interview with Jessica Richter, Uni:View Magazin, 23 March 2016, https://medienportal.univie.ac.at/uniview/semesterfrage/detailansicht/artikel/freiwilligen-organisationen-als-integrationsmotoren/