Policies towards forced migrants in Austria*

Refugee policy is depending on the overall political climate and cleavages as any other field of policies. Maybe it is even more in the center of such disputes as it has economic, social and cultural roots and consequences. And of course perceptions and emotions do play a bigger role than with other political issues.

Hannes Swoboda - Migrants in Austria

Historical background

Concerning Austria we should also look to the longer history of – German speaking – Austrian population. Already in times of the Austrian – Hungarian monarchy there was a „German-liberal“ movement arising critical of being to much connected with peoples from the East, which by the way was also seen as a reason Austria was excluded from the German Union.

And at the same time anti-semitism was rising partly also against the Jews especially coming from the „Schtetls“ from Eastern Europe. So the dreadful and tragic Nazi-period had already some roots in the past.

Overall positive Austrian policies

After the war Austria was several times affected by a strong influx of refugees. Sometimes the bulk of refugees used Austria as a transit country, especially in the case of refugees from Hungary 1956. On other occasions like with the Balkan wars the majority of those who came stayed in Austria.

So why have the refugee „waves“ from Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland  and Bosnia-Hercegovina and Kosovo been dealt with rather without frictions? And why have we today many more debates?

Changing mood in Austria

Certainly there are several reasons for that change in the mood of Austrians.

a) One has of course to recognize that the more elaborated the welfare state is, the more it is seen as something which is endangered by newcomers.

b) Secondly, already the newcomers of the Eastern Europe countries who came on the basis of freedom of movement inside the EU were seen as competitors. And many refugees and migrants from South Eastern Europa and from Turkey are still on the labour market and are also increasingly affected by unemployment. It is seen as a zero-sum game. The more as the economic growth has been reduced and the welfare state has been under attack and affected by budget cuts.

c) Thirdly the reorientation of the extreme right wing from a German liberal oriented party to an Austrian patriotic and even nationalistic party.

This new orientation of the party with stronger social demands and less liberal economic orientation brought the party new voters especially from the working and lower middle class.

As Austria is a federal countries with strong power and influence by the 9 states this asymmetric competition leaning to the right is also affecting the different states and their democratic institutions.

And when some federal countries are lowering the minimum income/social support then those with still higher support will come under financial pressure. There will be a strong inclination to lower this standards as well.

Push and pull to the right

The strong development of the extreme right party into the fields which were the „monopoly“ of other parties pushed also these parties to the right with more critical positions vis-a-vis forced migrants. And that affected also the work in the government where we could even observe some competition which minister is more accepting the arguments of the extreme right.

Lack of European solutions and solidarity

Then came the chaos in Europe with a lack of a clear European strategy. For years it was always argued, that the advantage of the EU is that with them and inside the EU we can tackle with complicated issues by common efforts. We will not be left alone but we will be supported. And than things were going differently.

Hannes Swoboda - Migrants in Austria

The lack of solidarity – either financially or by taking in forced migrants – was supporting the anti EU propaganda and all the sentiments against taking in refugees.

Cultural identity

And as many refugees came from Muslim countries and had themselves Muslim background this supported also the „cultural“ argument against those forced migrants.

In addition, all arguments and regulations from other EU countries which limited the influx of refugee or which reduced the rights and possibilities of these people were taken on board by different political forces.

The positive role of civil society

In spite of that public debate and hesitance till resistance of the political sphere to have a clear policy of immigration and integration the civil society and many individual citizens were actively and positively involved in helping forced migrants.

An enormous welcome climate has been evolving and is still very active even with much publicity. I know many people which do help refugees in finding a way to justice, public recognition and support.

One of the problems has been the limiting of forced migrants to get a fair and quick access to asylum procedures. Now with the reduction of refugees coming this question did not become a hot issue.

Upper limit for dealing with asylum requests

But for the moment there is one issue on the table which is very grotesque and strange to me. It is about Austria’s decision not to participate at the relocation process concerning refugees landing in Italy and Greece.

Hannes Swoboda - Migrants in Austria

The fact that the foreseen forced migrants which should be taken by Austria are unaccompanied minors make the issue even more unacceptable – for me at least and many people to whom I could speak in the last days.

No innovative governance of the refugee issue

It is definitely a task of the national government and the regional and local governments to have a clear vision about how to handle the migration and integration issue. Basic decisions have to be taken by them and the national and regional parliaments.

The state has to take its responsibility seriously. But today and on basis of these decisions new forms of governance have to be developed.

Coming back to the role of the NGOs it is very sad, that the recent influx of refugees has not been used to find a practical and interesting new form of  „governance“ by the public authorities and the NGOs in new forms of division of labour and cooperation.

Partly on the contrary, some attacked the NGOs for inviting refugees or at least making it easy for them to arrive on European soil. But we should find ways to strengthen the legitimacy of political decisions by creating and promoting a new form of democracy, where governance is including delegation to parts of the civil society.

Integration package

Recently a new integration package has been decided by the government. And there are some positive integration steps included. And this is also affecting the relationship with and role of NGOs.

It concerns the learning of the German language and especially the participation in communal/social work. It is a compromise between different approaches to migration and integration with some incentives and some less useful regulations like forbidding the burka.

In this Connection there was and partly there is still a debate about a second – lower paid – labour market. The trade unions fear an undermining of wages by refugees working in similar jobs but with lower wages.

*This paper is the background for a presentation in the framework of a conference organized by students of Kent University in Brussels.