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.
By Gabriele Rasuly-Paleczek
Most current studies on refugees and asylum seekers coming to Europe focus on the reasons for fleeing, the challenges refugees face during their flight, and their experiences in potential host countries. So far little attention has been paid to the relevance of personal motives (e.g. fleeing to avoid a forced marriage, or to escape an ongoing vendetta) and to the importance of social obligations and relations in the context of forced migration.
When social relations are highlighted at all, they are mostly studied in the context of facilitating the establishment of refugees in their new places of residence (e.g. providing jobs, housing and a first orientation in the new environment), or in connection with transnational networks of refugees and their relatives and friends left behind in former places of residence. A few studies, such as the paper by A. Monsutti et alii entitled “Afghan Transnational Networks: Looking Beyond Repatriation” (2006) and Ch. Berg Harpviken´s book entitled Social Networks and Migration in Wartime Afghanistan (2009), highlighted the role of social networks for the reintegration of returning refugees in their former home region and/or in preventing people from becoming refugees at all by successfully securing a sustainable livelihood despite protracted war or civil war.
However, the decision to flee is not only informed by personal concerns (e.g. fearing to be killed by insurgents), but is also closely linked to social obligations individuals bear to their social environment (e.g. children, wife, kinsmen, friends). Thus, it seems worthwhile to focus on the intersection of social ties and obligations and the reasons for fleeing, including very personal ones as forced marriage.
In line with other studies, the data on refugees from Afghanistan that were collected in the framework of the ROR-n pilot study that informed the book “From Destination to Integration – Afghan, Syrian and Iraqi Refugees in Vienna “ (2017) show that it is usually a combination of causes that influences the decision to flee or to renew a flight.
Frequently, we find a mixture of general security concerns (e.g. increases in local violence, heightening of ethnic and religious conflicts), personally experienced violence (death threats, detention by government and/ or opposition groups, reprisals by Islamic radicals, retaliation for having worked for foreigners), as well as economic and other reasons (e.g. being persuaded by friends to leave the country with them, evading an unbearable domestic situation, fleeing from an ongoing vendetta, being discriminated in current place of residence, e.g. in Iran). However, these flight motives are often closely linked to social obligations.
Despite decades of protracted violence, displacement and economic hardship that have badly affected the resilience and coping strategies of most Afghans, many still exhibit a strong commitment towards fulfilling their social obligations, in particular towards honoring their responsibility for the wellbeing of their family, kinsmen and friends. Thus, protecting the life of family members or offering children a “good life” are among the most important social obligations that – in addition to the aforementioned reasons – inform the pre-flight decision making process.
These social obligations are often deemed as more important than one’s own wellbeing and safety. Several of our interviewees mentioned that the final decision to flee was only taken when a personal threat (e.g. fear of being abducted, receiving threatening letters etc.) was perceived as not only endangering one’s own life, but also that of other family members (e.g. children, parents, brothers, etc.).
An illustrative case is a 54-year-old male Pashtun from Kandahar, whose brother had been killed several years earlier by the Taliban. The interviewee himself fell victim to a suicide attack in which he was severely wounded and lost the vision of one of his eyes. Yet, it was not until his two young children were threatened to be kidnapped for ransom that he and his family left the country.
Offering one’s children a better future also forms an important motivation for many refugees, as the following quote from the same interview illustrates: “Since I had been seven years old, blood had been spilled in Afghanistan, until today. When I consider my situation, without education, under no circumstance did I want my children to suffer the same fate. Education is very important!”
The commitment to protect the life of family and kin and to care for their wellbeing does not solely refer to one’s own personal flight (e.g. fleeing to minimize potential threats for other family members who stay put). It also extends to the obligation to organize the flight of a relative whose life is endangered or to send a family member away offering him/her better occupational or educational opportunities as in the case of a 21-year-old male Hazara, who at the age of 17 was prompted by his father to leave Iran, where the interviewee and his family were living in precarious circumstances.
The obligation to support family members, kin or friends focuses mainly on organizing the flight itself. Close relatives (e.g. father, father-in-law, mother-brother, etc.) and friends provide the financial means for the flight and/ or establish contact with a human trafficker, herein often using personal networks to trace a trustworthy smuggler. Yet, the support does not stop here. It is granted throughout the whole flight process by sending money to allow the continuation of the flight, by putting a refugee in contact with acquaintances that may facilitate further movements, or by offering advice for what to do next when a problem appears.
Summing up, our Afghanistan data offer ample evidence that the decision to flee is informed by a combination of causes, such as security concerns, economic as well as personal reasons, and a vast array of social obligations. The relevance of social obligations in the pre-flight decision-making process has oftentimes been neglected in forced migration studies. This research gap should be closed by putting a stronger research focus on the intersection of social obligations and reasons for fleeing when studying forced migrants.
From Destination to Integration: Afghan, Syrian and Iraqi Refugees in Vienna is available for purchase here
Berg Harpviken, Christian. 2009. Social Networks and Migration in Wartime Afghanistan. Houndmills, Basingstoke, New York
Kohlbacher, Josef and Schiocchet, Leonardo (Eds.): From Destination to Integration – Afghan, Syrian and Iraqi Refugees in Vienna. ISR-Forschungsbericht Heft 45, Vienna 2017; Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaft
Monsutti, Alessandro and Collective for Social Science Research. 2006. “Afghan Transnational Networks: Looking Beyond Repatriation.” Synthesis Paper Series; Kabul, AREU, August 2006
“Steps on the way to social integration”: Initial social interactions of refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan with the host society, their relevance, assessment and implications
By Josef Kohlbacher
This post discusses how the refugees interviewed for the study perceived of the receiving context in the Austrian society. It focuses on social contacts of refugees with Austrians. These Austrians may be police officers, NGO representatives, refugee workers, language tutors, and so on. The analysis is based on the assumption that social integration is a process of change and exchange that involves both refugees and people of the host society and which starts immediately with the first contacts, though the extracted material only reflects the refugees’ perspective of this interactive process. Thus, I investigated the modes and consequences of interethnic social interactions and the resulting social ties in the refugees’ everyday life and path to integration. A qualitative and interpretative research approach was used to understand how refugees relate to social contexts and make sense of them on their path to social embeddedness in Austrian society. The temporal plane of reference is mainly the initial and early phase of stay. In some cases, refugees who had been in Austria longer were included in the analysis –mainly with regard to housing and labor market integration and social ties that have been established for longer–. A broad range of experiences have been represented in the study depending on socio-economic and socio-demographic variables such as gender, education, language proficiency and country of origin. At the time of our interviews, the range of interactions with locals spanned from living in a flat together with Austrian friends to a complete absence of social contacts with the local population.
Two main fields could be identified in which weak or strong social ties were particularly important. Both categories are based on the theory of the American sociologist Mark Granovetter, who found that the “strength” of an interpersonal tie is a linear combination of the amount of time, the emotional intensity, the intimacy (or mutual confiding), and the reciprocal services which characterize each tie. So, the best example for strong ties are friendship relations, whereas most neighborhood contacts can be classified as being of weak tie quality:
Refugees have to develop differentiated strategies in order to solve problems of “arriving” in Austrian society. One of the most important strategies for the interviewees was the search for social support. Refugees, who had lost their family network were very eager to establish new social ties to compensate for the social vacuum. It became clear that among the determinants of establishing social ties individual motivations, sociability and in particular language skills were among the most relevant.
Those respondents with good German-language skills were likely to fare better in all domains. Social contacts are the best German language training and also the best “antidepressant”, as the following quote from an interview with a young Hazara from Ghazni in Afghanistan illustrates: “In this area for example, in the beginning I stayed two years there, I spoke the language a little, but I had troubles and could not really learn, really now after some time I was able to find my way with my friends, I found Austrian friends and I can communicate with them. Now my heart became brighter.”
Our material also showed that involvement in education in general and in particular German language courses are a very important way of making new contacts. As mentioned above, “subjective” individual determinants as introversion or extraversion proved to be very relevant. Conversely, among the “objective” determinants, time plays a key role, as the longer one stays the more opportunities she or he has to integrate.
I also analyzed the long-term perspective, which means the relevance of social ties in structural integration. Here housing and labor market integration are the most important fields. In some cases, it turned out that even weak ties proved to be very effective in organizing housing opportunities for the respondents. This can be illustrated by the following quote from an interview with a young man: “My first experiences with Austrians were excellent. Actually, I am sharing a flat with an Austrian. He provided me his flat although he doesn’t really know me. He left his bedroom to me and my brother and he himself is sleeping in the smaller room. Though he does not know me, he did this all for me. Not even your close relatives would do this for you. The Austrians are really extraordinarily helpful and very affectionate people” .
In the field of labor market integration our sample mirrored that informal help and social contacts play a minor role. Active support for labor market integration by weak as well as strong ties with Austrians was rarely mentioned. There were only a few respondents, who were very optimistic also in expecting support by Austrian friends for realizing the future plans in labor market career on a long-term perspective.
Now, which were the main factors hindering social interactions? It became clear that language problems were among the barriers which were most frequently mentioned by the refugees. Thus, all our respondents were eager to improve their German by attending language courses and additionally by studying on their own. Xenophobia forms a further barrier but in our sample only few refugees spoke of experiences with explicitly xenophobic attitudes. Some refugees did not refer to explicit xenophobia but rather to a kind of general social distance in human interactions. In the words of an Iraqi woman: “It is true that this country is very progressive, but there is almost no social contact between people. There is no care for each other, there is no empathy or sympathy towards other human beings. There is no friend who suddenly knocks at the door and comes for some coffee.”
As ISR researcher I was also interested in the relevance of spatial factors. For many respondents the desire for more social contacts with native Austrians went hand in hand with an explicit preference for living in urban spaces due to better opportunities for social interactions. In this vein, an Iraqi woman said: “In the urban context I will have more possibilities to come into contact with Austrian people. By this it is easier for me to integrate and I will learn the language more quickly. In the countryside I perhaps have to live far from civilization and one has only very few contacts with the Austrian population”. One has, however, to emphasize that this argument was contradicted by other respondents. So, for example a female respondent from Syria stated considerable differences in the openness for social contacts and in their quality between smaller towns in Tyrol where she stayed before and the city of Vienna: “... the people, they were very nice with me when I was in Tirol, they were very, very nice with me, I have to say. ... But, when I came to Vienna, Vienna is a work city. You could easily not know, what is the face of your neighbor, just near your door and you meet him in the building in the stairs, but you didn’t know that he is the person, who is living there. It’s a very busy life in Vienna.”
As the research project was a pilot and exploratory study, the purposive sampling of respondents with specific demographic characteristics does not allow for generalizations. The study focused mainly on the experiences of refugees who were recent arrivals and did not perceive themselves to have fully undergone the process of re-establishing social networks. Therefore, the findings derived on the basis of the interviews were quite idiosyncratic to this specific group. It will be necessary to investigate larger samples of refugees from various ethnic backgrounds and with different characteristics in order to produce a representative picture of the patterns of building up weak and strong social ties in a receiving society for refugees.
This is the second post of our blog post series on From Destination to Integration: Afghan, Syrian and Iraqi Refugees in Vienna, edited by Josef Kohlbacher and Leonardo Schiocchet (2017). This book features results, analyses and interpretations of a pilot study conducted by ROR-n and can be purchased here