by Josef Kohlbacher
When the so-called “refugee crisis” of summer 2015 became a persistent issue in the media throughout Europe it quickly transpired that most of the popular discourse about refugees in Austria was based more or less on speculation. There was a substantial lack of empirically gathered and systematically analyzed data about the people who were arriving. Depending on the popular mood and political-ideological interests, threatening images of a mass influx of young men were counteracted by those of small children and old grandmas. These extremes dominated the media discourse. However, as in other fields of social reality, human biographies and personal destinies are extremely diverse and the superficial knowledge presented in media reports could not come close to providing satisfactory answers to many of the questions that arised.
Thus, to offer a more objective and realistic image of the spectrum of the reality of refuge, the ROR-n decided to carry out an academic analysis. Based on the available expertise, a qualitative method of data collecting was decided upon. Thus, from December 2015 to March 2016, 60 biographical interviews with refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan living in Vienna were compiled mainly through networking and the use of “snowball sampling”. In each of the three communities about 20 interviews were made. The interview duration was approx. one hour but in some cases also considerably longer conversations could be recorded by native speakers of Farsi-Dari, Pashto, Arabic and Kurdish, who had undergone previous interview training with experienced researchers from ROR-n.
The collected information provided a wide range of insights into biographical topics in the context of refuge, for example, flight motivations and the often traumatic experiences which were made in the countries of descent but of course also during the long way to and in Europe. Most of the respondents had lost relatives, some almost their whole families and many had suffered severe personal or religious persecution. There were Christians, Yezidis, Shiites and Sunnis among them. Some had been persecuted because of their professional engagement in NGOs or government institutions, others were victims of forced marriage or were physically disabled.
A further important field of investigation was the educational and qualification background of those interviewed. This ranged from university graduates and Qur’anic school graduates to those unable to read or write. The hopes and expectations for a better life in Austria were as varied as the respondents themselves. In particular those, who already had stayed longer in Austria realized that many of their initial expectations remained unrealistic, that gaining a foothold in the Austrian labor market was extremely hard, even for the better educated and in many cases they had to accept some kind of de-qualification . The challenges of integration into the Austrian society proved to be diverse and even such “simple” things as accommodation proved to be a very challenging project.
There was an explicit focus on the particularity of individual experiences during the flight. These unique dynamic experiences of fleeing and integration formed the basis for a comparison and interpretation of the content of the pilot study interviews. It was possible to reveal structures of action and of individual coping strategies to meet the challenges of flight, arrival and early residence in Austria and also the processes of long-term integration as some of the interviewed refugees had already lived for up to one or two years in Austria.
In view of the political importance of the discussion relating to an equal distribution of refugees between urban and rural areas and the different federal states of Austria, the residential preferences of refugees concerning rural or urban social contexts were investigated too. It turned out that there is a strong interrelation between the sending context and residential preferences. Refugees moving from rural areas usually prefer village life in Austria too. Those who moved from metropolises such as Kabul, Baghdad or Damascus wanted to stay in Vienna or other urban agglomerations.
A broad range of different experiences of social contacts between the refugees and the Austrians was evident, obviously depending on specific variables such as gender, level of education, language proficiency and country of origin. Women usually reported different experiences than men, younger persons experienced other interactions and paths to integration than elderly refugees. Only a minority of respondents reported experiences in which rejectionist attitudes of local people were demonstrated against them. This may be a visible outcome of the general mood of politically and medially fostered “welcome culture” which dominated the refugee discussion in Austria until the turn of the year 2015/16. The experiences in the countries of transit, for example Greece or Hungary, were more precarious and a considerable number of cases of violence and financial exploitation were reported.
Many interviews illustrated that it is generally through initial social contacts in Austria that refugees gain a first insight into the modes of interaction with Austrians as well as into the reality and characteristics of the receiving society. One initial setting for such interactions can be found in refugee homes or camps (the refugee camp Traiskirchen was often mentioned) where most of the respondents had to live immediately upon arrival in Austria. Thus, interesting insights into the refugees’ relationships with their immediate social environment in these homes were also collected in the interviews. Some were rather positive, others extremely negative.
Some of the casual relationships with Austrians even proved to be long-lasting and helped the refugees a considerably in gaining a foothold in the receiving society and in establishing a social network in Austria both with compatriots and Austrians, too. Many long-term implications of positive inter‐ethnic relations were reported.
A qualitative and interpretative research approach was used to understand how the refugees make sense of their experiences and networks on their path to social embeddedness into the Austrian society. At the time of our interviews the range of interactions with locals spanned from living together with Austrian friends to a complete absence of social contacts with the local population. The study provides interesting insights in the refugees’ perspective of their situation, their hopes and expectations, specific problem constellations, and the challenges they have met in Austria. These aspects of seeking refuge and refugee life contribute to a deeper and more realistic picture of the living environment of forced migrants.
The research results will be published later in 2017 in a booklet as part of the series “ISR-Forschungsberichte” and will be open access and advertised by ROR-n when available. Based on the results of this project, further research projects have been planned and designed and are currently at various stages of implementation. One project focuses on refugees from Afghanistan and how their values change over time as they live in Austria, another focuses on Syrians and Iraqis, using a participatory approach and involving NGOs and other institutional stakeholders.
 This is a non-probability sampling technique where existing respondents recruit further respondents from among their acquaintances. Thus the sample group is said to grow like a rolling snowball.