Facing the Closed-Door Topic of Migrants and Sexual Assault

A few days after the council elections, election posters are still scattered about the city. Those put up by the far-right FPÖ (Freedom Party), attracted criticism for their broad-brush depictions of foreign groups and the use of classic racist tropes, including one of a woman screaming in terror, attacked by a masked, dark-haired villain.

The FPÖ feels justified, however, by statistics revealing that foreigners in Vienna are committing relatively more sexual offenses than Austrian citizens. While police records show an overall decline in crime, the number of rapes has gone up in recent years. Especially 2016 recorded a significant increase of 14% – as many as 4/5 of the increase (Der Standard) ascribed to Afghan and Syrian migrants, a percentage that has remained largely unchanged in the years since. The Afghans, especially, are overrepresented in the numbers: In the years following the 2015 refugee crisis, they have ranked constantly first among offenders with foreign citizenship, incriminated in 7,3% of all crimes from 2016 to 2019, although less than 1% of the population. 

Part of the problem was the sheer numbers: In 2015, with hundreds of thousands fleeing war, terror and economic calamity, the number of asylum applications in Austria skyrocketed to over 88.000 – more than three times the year before. While annual numbers have declined since, more than 180,000 refugees have filed for asylum in Austria over the past six years, with Afghans and Syrians the two largest groups. 

Adding Focus on Women

Successful integration requires not only housing, jobs and schools, but also the cultural inclusion “essential for solidarity and social harmony,” write the drafters of the Integrationsberichtan annual report published by the Austrian Expertenratof independent government advisors. Their 2020 report concludes that mutual respect based on common values and cultural standards were the “cornerstone” of the integration process, the “glue” holding society together. 

This is not a new insight: In November 2015, the Austrian government put its first value and orientation courses (Werte- und Orientierungskurse) in place as part of their 50 Punkte-Plan, 50 measures for successful integration. The idea was to help the refugees to find their way in daily life and to introduce them to the core values of Austrian society.

The Integration Act (Integrationsgesetz), passed in 2017, made participation a requirement in the asylum application procedure. In addition, the law stressed the integration of female refugees, and since 2017, the number of women participating has nearly doubled. Sitting side by side with their sisters, daughters and mothers, men were shown that women in Austria have equal rights and make their own decisions. The latest government program now plans to expand the courses from the current eight hours to 24 – still far less than the 66 hours required in Germany, but still an improvement..

The courses are organized by the Austrian Integration Fund (Österreichischer Integrationsfond ÖIF) –an independent governmental agency and operational partner of the Ministry of Integration that offers guidance in its nine integration centers and 39 mobile counseling offices throughout the country. By the end of 2019, the ÖIF had held nearly 5,000 courses with a majority of participants coming from Afghanistan and Syria.

The report goes on to describe the patriarchal structures common among the immigrants and the concept of personal honor as drivers of violence against women – and thus one of the major challenges of integration. 

“Violence against women often has no legal consequences in the men’s home countries,” said Marina Sorgo, head of the Violence Protection Centers in Austria, in an interview with the ÖIFlast year. “These values are passed on over generations, so you don’t unlearn them overnight. It needs intensive, continuous work.”

Building Values From Scratch

The ÖIFs’ courses start from scratch: “What does equality between men and women mean?” is one of the questions addressed in class. Equal rights, violence prevention and the role of police and security staff are thoroughly discussed, Mirela Memic, head of values and orientation at the ÖIF told Metropole in an email. And while results are difficult to measure, “ongoing evaluations show that participants are very positive about the courses,” finding them “helpful and important for the integration process.” 

In addition, the ÖIF has follow-up programs like ZUSAMMEN:ÖSTERREICH (together Austria). The idea behind this initiative: Successful individuals with migrant background serve as “ambassadors for integration,” discussing matters of integration, discrimination and the basics of peaceful co-existence with children and adolescents.

In another initiative, Federal Women’s Minister Susanne Raab, announced in March a 20% budget increase for women’s issues – the first in ten years – to support counseling services and violence protection measures. Raab also provided an additional €2 million from the Integration budget to tackle culturally determined violence against women.

Other organizations also help. STAR*K, a project of Caritas (Catholic Charities) in schools and other educational institutions, works with adolescents to help them understand the cultural attitudes and power structures that lead to violence against women, learning how to identify, address and counteract gender-based forms of violence.

A study among young Muslim adults in Vienna showed that the sweeping devaluation of women is particularly high among Afghan and Syrian adolescents, but also among Turks – similarly over-represented among suspects accused of forcible rape – suggesting that the misogynist attitudes reflect the cultural norms of traditional Muslim societies rather than nationality per se.  

However,suspicion isn’t the same as a conviction. “Statistics can also be influenced by racial profiling,” explains Philippe Schennach, an analyst at ZARA. “Skin colour, ethnicity, religion or citizenship often influences police  decisions on whether and what kind of actions are taken.” 

Moreover, the overrepresentation of migrants and asylum seekers in crime statistics is often a consequence of social impediments and what Schennach calls “structural inequalities in the system.” “Social circumstances can have an influence on criminality – such as long periods of unemployment, cramped housing conditions or the lack of a social network,” he says. “These factors can be a consequence of racial discrimination and marginalization, or else, be intensified by it.” 

Migrant are more often unemployed, their access to education limited and daily life complicated by language barriers and public reservations. Unemployment is especially high among Afghans, Syrians and Iraqis – in 2019, 36,7%, nearly six times the rate among Austrians – in a group that was two-thirds male with an average age of 25, the prime age group for crime.

Becoming ‘Prejudice Conscious’

The question remains of how to address the topic without fueling stereotypes. Marina Sorgo from the Violence Protection Centers suggests candor but without reverting to generalizations: “The share of migrants in our society is rising, but obviously not every migrant is violent. Men with problematic values can be also found among Austrians.” Schennach from ZARA agrees, saying that violence against women can be found in any society, regardless of education level or religious believes.

“We caution again establishing a connection between the origin of a person and any kind of crime.“ This thinking fosters racism and leads to sweeping suspicions, he says. Especially with the pandemic-induced social insecurity, that becomes a “breeding ground” for racist stereotypes and scaremongering. “In the long run, the only thing is education.” In their workshops, the ZARA team asks people to reflect on these stereotypes. Everyone is prejudiced, Schennach believes, the key is being aware of them. Becoming “prejudice-conscious,” as he puts it.

Integration, it becomes clear, concerns society as a whole, requiring openness and commitment from all sides. With both racism and sexual violence, cultural norms are both cause and cure, experts say. So this is where the discussions need to begin.

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