“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