The Dangers of Denial

Two years after the start of the refugee crisis, some hard truths and daunting challenges can no longer be ignored.

Since 2015, when over a million refugees flooded across EU borders, it has been nearly impossible to have an honest conversation about what was at stake. It all happened so quickly; the numbers were mind-boggling – some 98,000 applying for asylum in Austria. It was only thanks to the volunteers that the thousands were fed, clothed, sheltered and counseled, while the overstretched social machinery geared up to take over.

Even harder was talking about it. So much got in the way: the guilty cloud of the Holocaust, the Catholic Church’s honored tradition of charity, the deeply-rooted values of European social democracy – of open societies, of fairness and respect for human rights.

If refugees behaved badly, no one was supposed to notice. Police were counseled to be lenient; even violence and sexual assault in the shelters went unreported. That the incidents occurred was hardly surprising as 73% of the refugees were young men, traveling alone.  But if home was so dangerous, where were the parents, sisters, wives?  (“They send the sons ahead,” one volunteer told me. “Then the family just buys a plane ticket.”) The media bent over backwards to show the refugees in a positive light so as not to turn the public against them.

With preference for Syrians and Iraqis, others, understandably, took to lying, and piles of discarded passports were found in the woods. One Croatian volunteer remarked with a sigh that it had taken his family eight years to get through the process.  How was it these people could simply walk in?

But a blanket of denial lay over public discussion.  Most of all, over discussion of the gaping cultural divide between the refugees and their hosts in Austria. Silenced by our dearly-held values of religious freedom, we were unable to talk about the social problems that arise with refugees who came from cultures with vastly different assumptions about human rights, relations between the sexes and a host of other societal norms. It was a discussion that could easily slip into Islamophobia, or the perception of it, even for those who support the need for stronger integration efforts.

Only the FPÖ seemed willing to talk about it, even if crudely, voicing the anxieties of an ever-wider public tired of being told they were racist for bringing it up. Now, a party that few in the political center had seen as a useful partner in constructive political discourse, was raising the issue of the culture gap in a way that encouraged debate.

Two years on, we know a lot more. Two recent studies have been particularly influential: one, “Muslimische Gruppen in Österreich“, from August 2017 by a team at the Donau Universität Krems led by political scientist Peter Filzmaier on commission for the Austrian Integration Fund; the second, “EU Minorities and Discrimination Survey (Midis II)“, from September 2017 by the Vienna-based EU Agency for Fundamental Rights. According to the Filzmaier study, for example, Muslims in Austria – whose number has doubled since 2001 – often “refuse to integrate” and over 30% have little or no contact outside the community. More than half of male refugees and 40% of Turks think it correct that a man refuse his hand to a woman – confirming a common complaint of Austrian officials and schoolteachers. A full third believe that Austrian law “does no apply” to observant Muslims. And while a majority thinks the choice to wear a headscarf should be left to the woman, 2nd generation Turks and Bosnians stand squarely against a ban of the Burka or Niqab. In other words, they think it’s fine if Muslim women remain invisible outside the home.

The new Education Minister Heinz Faßmann (ÖVP) remains optimistic and wants to provide intensive language tutoring – “perhaps three hours a day” – outside of regular classes. This is a very good place to start. With good German, a newcomer can become part of the culture, and in some cases enrich it. Without it, of course, it’s next to impossible.

The vision of the new Interior Minister, Herbert Krickl (FPÖ) appears through a dark dystopian glass: “Through the policy of open borders… [Austria and Europe] pushed the western achievements of the Enlightenment, tolerance and even of social equality, to the brink.”  He’s not wrong. With these figures, in fact, it’s hard to argue.

We need a strategy for welcoming people in realistic numbers, to offer refugees and Austrians the best chance at maintaining the open-minded, inclusive culture that began in the 1970s of Bruno Kreisky, and has helped modern Vienna and Austria thrive.

We have profound differences with the FPÖ. But we must also be honest enough, and humble enough, to admit that they may be correct about this, about the risks of taking in so many, who don’t – at least not yet – share many of Austria’s values.

We should have paid better attention before; we must pay attention now.

This article was published in the February print edition of Metropole. The online version was edited for clarity by the author.

Dardis McNamee
Dardis McNamee is the Editor in Chief of Metropole. She has written for The New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler (NYC), the Wall Street Journal Europe and Die Zeit in Vienna, as well as having been a speechwriter to two U.S. ambassadors to Austria. She was awarded the 2007 Kemper Award for Excellence in Teaching (Media & Communications).

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