The Bosnian war brought a wave of migrants fleeing to Vienna. We somehow muddled through. How did we manage?

Kemal Smajic was 12 years old when his family was forced to flee eastern Bosnia; today he is an IT manager for the Austrian postal service.(Photo: Christopher Klettermayer)
Kemal Smajic was 12 years old when his family was forced to flee eastern Bosnia; today he is an IT manager for the Austrian postal service.
(Photo: Christopher Klettermayer)

When the first shots were fired in a town a few hundred kilometers away, Kemal Smajic’s parents thought it might pass. A few days later, Serbian militiamen marched through their hometown of Zvornik in eastern Bosnia and told all the Muslims to disarm. Shortly afterward, the shelling started. People began to disappear. It was the beginning of what would become the Bosnian War.

In May 1992, the Smajic family fled.

“We actually had planned to go to Sweden to live with relatives of my father,” says Kemal Smajic, then 12 years old. “We even had tickets for the train, but in Vienna they told us not to get our hopes up – the Germans had closed the border.”

The Smajics were among the first families to reach safety in Austria. Others were not so lucky – in the weeks after they left, hundreds of their neighbors were killed by Serbian militia.

The violence in the multi-ethnic Balkans sparked a mass exodus. By the summer of 1992, thousands of refugees started arriving at the Austrian border – similar to the present-day influx. Then, as now, the authorities were caught unprepared. Xenophobia grew.

Yet the situation never became a “crisis” – a valuable lesson, perhaps, for the present day.

Not an ideal situation
In the early summer of 1992, emergency centers were set up in school gyms and event arenas. It was “not ideal” sleeping with 500 other people in a drafty hall on the outskirts of Vienna, Smajic remembers, but many people came to help them.

In the following weeks and months, Austria experienced a spontaneous wellspring of solidarity. Strangers came to the refugee camps, bringing food and clothes and giving language lessons. Kindly neighbors helped new arrivals find housing and employment. They were “welcomed with friendliness and a readiness to help,” remembers another former refugee, Irfan Skiljan. “All the people, soldiers and ordinary citizens in Wöllersdorf, where I stayed, were very nice to us.”

Empathy for the refugees was soon followed by a political backlash, however. In October 1992, the far right Freedom Party (FPÖ) launched an “Austria First” petition, demanding an immediate stop to immigration, more police and deportation of “criminal foreigners.” More than 400,000 Austrians signed.

Attacks on refugee centers became a common occurrence, with Bosnian Muslims particularly targeted by right-wing hooligans. “Someone threw firecrackers into our dormitory,” Smajic remembers. Yet he trained himself not to hold any grudges. “I knew, even back then, which idiots from the nearby housing estates had
done it – but I didn’t hold the whole Austrian population responsible.”

The ongoing, if sometimes patchy, assistance by the Austrian government and public helped many Bosnians find a place in society. From 1992 until the end of the war in 1995 and its aftermath, more than 90,000 Bosnians fled to Austria. Once the conflict ceased, authorities allowed those who had integrated to stay. Over 60,000 of them would build lives in their new home country.

Erhard Busek, leader of the conservative ÖVP and Vice-Chancellor from 1990-1995, was instrumental in shaping Austria’s refugee policy at the time.(Photo: Manca Juvan)
Erhard Busek, leader of the conservative ÖVP and Vice-Chancellor from 1990-1995, was instrumental in shaping Austria’s refugee policy at the time.
(Photo: Manca Juvan)

Success Stories
Today, many see the Bosnian refugees as a big win for Austria.

“Looking back, one has to say we have profited immensely,” says Erhard Busek, then Austria’s Vice-Chancellor. It re-invigorated Vienna, whose population had declined steadily from WWII up through the 80s. And the Bosnians were helped by their historic ties to Austria, dating back to the Habsburg Empire, Busek says – becoming part of the k. u. k. monarchy in 1878. “The Muslim community here has a strong tradition recognized by law since 1912. So there were already many Bosnian Muslims here.” Many Central European Muslims joined their families who had been in Austria for generations. They were quickly integrated into the labor force.

The 1990s wave of immigration from the Balkans and the current influx from the war-torn middle east are not directly comparable, and integration has worked better for Bosnians than for other immigrant groups. According to the latest figures from 2014, unemployment among native Bosnians was 6.7% – less than half that among people born in Serbia or Turkey. Many Bosnians who arrived were skilled craftsmen in the building trades. “Those were exactly the jobs traditionally in demand on the Austrian labor market,” said August Gächter a labor market analyst in a recent interview with the Austrian daily Der Standard. Today median monthly income among Bosnians is €1,577 – about €40 higher than that of Serbs or other immigrants from Eastern European EU countries.

Many former refugees from Bosnia have become remarkable success stories. Having arrived as a virtually penniless teenager in 1992, Irfan Skiljan developed a picture-viewing software IrfanView while studying at the Technical University Vienna. The program became an almost instant hit and is still used by millions worldwide.

Some have turned their personal experience into art. Then 17 years old, Nina Kusturica and her family were on the last bus out of Sarajevo before the Bosnian capital was put under siege. Kusturica now runs her own film production company and has gained international recognition for a documentary Little Alien, about the treatment of teenage refugees.

Giving back
Today, Kemal Smajic works as an IT manager with the Austrian Post. The support he received back in the 1990s has inspired him to start an aid project of his own: Futurebag that provides impoverished Bosnian school children with a bag, books and writing material to improve their educational prospects. “I am doing this [because of] my own situation as a refugee in 1992, Smajic says, “because back then I was helped. If someone is helped, he is more willing to give back.”

I am doing [charity] because back then I was helped. If someone is helped, he is more willing to give back.

Kemal Smajic

It’s easy to draw conclusions between older and current refugee crises. Back in the 1990s, the situation wasn’t always easy. The war in Bosnia kept grinding on, seemingly without an end in sight. Politicians, meanwhile, were keenly sensitive to the growing anxiety towards immigration. As a result, Austria didn’t give refugees any guarantees they could stay once the war was over, granting only a newly created de facto refugee status. For many Bosnians, there was no clear incentive to integrate. Yet still they did.

Muddling through proved to be a successful strategy back then, yet this time integration will require a lot more effort, Busek says, including improving job opportunities, but also addressing cultural differences. Meanwhile some former refugees try to help by reminding people that things have worked out in the past – and will again.

“I can’t do more than to advise people around me to speak openly, to listen to their fears and to try and assuage them,” says Smaijic. His own fear is it might not be an easy task.