Austria’s true challenge of the ongoing refugee crisis lies not in handling the immediate influx, but in making sure those who stay, stay with a purpose.

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Farahnaz “Fara” Abbasi, pictured here, grew up in a traditionally-minded Afghan community in Pakistan. Today the mother of a seven-year-old daughter works as a model and is building up her life in Austria. (Photo: Tom Platzer)

Nothing has made a deeper impression on the Austrian public over the past year than the arrival of 88,912 asylum seekers in this small, prosperous and landlocked Alpenrepublik.

Images of railway stations crowded with volunteers handing out food and clothing to exhausted Syrians, Iraqis or Afghans filled the international media, as the words “refugees welcome” appeared on banners and city walls, earning Austrians a brief and unexpected reputation for altruism.

But things are never simple, and the sudden presence of so many desperate refugees and migrants inspired both solidarity and fear here at home.  After early optimism began to fade, concerns mounted that the capacity of state and society to absorb so many foreigners was being pushed to its limits. As a result, the coalition government of the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) and Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) made a radical U-turn on its initial policy of open borders.

In January 2016, Chancellor Werner Faymann, who has since resigned, announced a cap of 37,500 on the number of asylum seekers for the coming year – a number still far higher than most other EU countries were ready to shoulder, he insisted. Two months later, Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz led a coalition of southeast European states in an internationally controversial effort to close the so-called Balkan route.

The long and short of it

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“Policies are adopted without taking the needs of those on the frontline of migration into account.” Gerasim “Geri” Dimitrov, Founder of Deutsch ohne Grenzen. (Photo: Christopher Klettermayer)

For Gerasim “Geri” Dimitrov, these measures are symptomatic of an official approach that has focused above all on managing the immediate influx of foreigners. When it comes to the longer-term task of social and economic integration, it’s civil society that has had to step in.

Dimitrov is a student of inter-cultural communication and the founder of Deutsch ohne Grenzen, whose volunteers offer free German classes to refugees and migrants. More than just imparting language skills, the organization hosts regular game nights, Kulturcafés and other social events to create an environment in which participants can interact with locals.

“Integration is about much more than just the language,” he explains. “Politicians call for refugees to enroll in German-language courses upon arrival, but not enough classes are being provided. This is why organizations like Deutsch ohne Grenzen exist.”

In part, the national government’s prioritization of border controls and basic care in large reception centers is simply a consequence of a system in which formal entry for new residents falls within the authority of federal states. A federal state as well as a city, Vienna has committed substantial resources and is supporting Dimitrov’s efforts.

We met during a game night in a modern and well-equipped city youth center. The atmosphere was relaxed and friendly. We watched as a young Austrian stared intently at a chessboard in a last-ditch attempt to avert defeat until his opponent cheerfully offered a Farsi word for checkmate.

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While the Austrian state provides refugees with housing, food and pocket money, it barely addresses their emotional needs. However, social interaction and cultural contact, like the game night pictured above, are crucial for successful integration. (Photo: Christopher Klettermayer)

The ability of refugees and migrants to speak German, find a job and identify with local laws, democratic practices and culture are crucial for determining the societal impact of their arrival. Dimitrov does not expect the federal government to do his work, but worries that policymakers are devoting too little thought to the inclusion of foreigners who are actually in the country.

“Policies are adopted without taking the needs of those on the frontline of migration into account,” he complains.

Since the first “Integration Agreement” came into effect in 2003, policymakers have resorted to increasingly strict integration policies, fueled by the xenophobic tactics of the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ). With the exception of some highly skilled labor, non-EU citizens must normally prove proficiency in German before entering the country, while the Rot-Weiß-Rot card (the Austrian equivalent to the U.S. green card), announced with much fanfare, remains inaccessible to most foreigners – even students with Austrian degrees – due to high salary requirements. 

Responding to the electoral success of the right-wing populist FPÖ, governments have hereby attempted to pander to popular anti-immigrant sentiment which has been buoyed by weak growth and high unemployment.

This has led to the emergence of an at times heated debate between assimilationist and multiculturalist extremes. Assimilationist demands for stringent and swift civic, cultural and economic integration are seen as irreconcilable with the pronounced tolerance of multicultural pluralism.

Fara’s journey

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“Sometimes I am ashamed to be a refugee. There are some who cannot even say why they are here.” Farahnaz “Fara” Abbasi, Afghani-Pakistani refugee, mother and model. (Photo: Tom Platzer)

Farahnaz “Fara” Abbasi, age 24, has been living in Austria for over a year. Her story suggests that it’s both necessary and possible to think beyond this strict dichotomy.

Born into a traditionally minded Afghan community in Pakistan where educational opportunities for girls were scarce, Fara entered an arranged marriage at 16. She soon became pregnant, and three months later, her husband disappeared. She later learned that he had emigrated to Australia. Trapped under the strict supervision of her father and suffering from the stigma of having a child but no husband, Fara dreamed of more self-determination. She confided in her mother Zarina and even considered suicide. 

Thus began a perilous odyssey, which initially brought Zarina, Fara, her daughter Haniya and her two siblings to Iran. Working on the black market, and borrowing from a friend, the family scraped together €6,000 to pay a smuggler for the dangerous journey to Europe.

At the Turkish border, Iranian police opened fire on their cramped van without warning. Terrified, Fara scrambled out of the vehicle. She managed to reach Turkey on foot with Haniya and her younger brother Ashgar. Her mother and sister Rida were captured and deported to Pakistan. A few weeks later, they boarded a leaky dinghy to Greece. Finally on EU soil, Fara was relieved to be greeted by helpful authorities and volunteers who organized shelter, food and medical care.

She would have happily stayed in Greece, Fara says, had it not been for the disappearance of her brother Ashgar. Learning over Facebook that he was in Austria, she felt compelled to follow him to this country she had never heard of.

Today, Fara still sounds overwhelmed by the warmth with which she was received by local officials and residents. She describes Austria as the “best and friendliest” country she has ever seen, an honor most Austrians would hesitate to claim for their motherland.

After receiving primary care at the Traiskirchen reception center, she was moved to longer-term accommodation in Upper Austria with her small family. Her daughter, now seven, is going to school for the first time of her life. Eager to master German, Fara attends language classes regularly and is very proud of having made Austrian friends. “I want to stay in Austria forever,” she exclaims confidently.

Her goal is to start working as soon as she can, and prove herself as an independent citizen of her host country. She doesn’t question the need to adapt to liberal democratic traditions. For her, it’s self-evident.

A need for tough love

At the same time, Fara is adamant that authorities differentiate among the new arrivals.  In her case, a right to residency in Austria could be readily justified on humanitarian grounds, as well as her enthusiastic desire to integrate. For other asylum applicants in 2015, the situation is less clear.

“Sometimes I am ashamed to be a refugee. There are some who cannot even say why they are here.”

Several of the young men where she lives have gotten into conflicts, both with each other and the law. Fara has personally been harassed for not conforming to an alleged ideal of Muslim womanhood. She has a boyfriend and only wears a hijab when she chooses to.

It was just these attitudes she had hoped to escape when she fled Pakistan. “They think they can do whatever they want now that they are here but they are wrong.” Fara insists that some punitive integration policies are necessary – some ’tough love’ – for those who disrespect the norms of the host country.

“Everybody knows that people who make problems will be sent back home. I agree with this practice.”

While her current boyfriend from Afghanistan is respectful of her choices, Fara laments that his attitude is rare in the strictly religious world she left behind. She is convinced that her father and brother would try to kill her if they knew of the extramarital relationship she has entered. 

Tempest-tossed

Once a favorite stop for backpackers on the hippie trail, Afghanistan underwent radical change after the Soviet invasion of 1979. Where short-skirted girls studying at university were once common, burkhas and madrasas (religious schools) became the new normal. During the Cold War,  Jihad was a useful weapon for Washington in its larger anti-communist struggle. The U.S. actively encouraged the export of fighters and Wahhabi-Deobandi fundamentalism from Sunni Arab Gulf states to Afghanistan, paving the way for the very Taliban regime it eventually deposed in 2001. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given its history, Afghanistan scored the lowest amongst nations in the Kompetenzcheck of asylum seekers’ skills and education level published by the Austrian public employment service (AMS) earlier this year (see February issue of Metropole,  “The Real Challenge” p20). Although the AMS -noted that the study was not representative as it assessed only 900 individuals grated asylum over the course of five weeks, an image of strong discrepancies between countries is evident.

Syrians, Iraqis and Iranians were well educated on average: 61% had completed some form of professional training, high school education or university studies. Within this group, Iranians performed best with 90% having been educated beyond mandatory schooling age in Austria (15). Of asylum seekers from Afghanistan, in contrast, 30% had no schooling history whatsoever and 20% had only gone to primary school. Whereas 11% of Afghani women had studied at university, the figure was only 5% for men.

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Game nights such as this one organized by Deutsch ohne Grenzen offer young refugees a chance to mingle with natives and get a respite from the daily routine, which consists mainly of waiting. (Photo: Christopher Klettermayer)

Unlike Fara, Geri has not had any negative experiences with the young male Afghans who come to the youth center to practice their German or play board games. He notes, however, that this circumstance may be explained by the fact that participation in Deutsch ohne Grenzen events is entirely open and voluntary. As a consequence, those who come already demonstrate an interest in Austrian society and culture.

Ultimately, finding a functioning balance between active integration and uncritical tolerance may prove the most significant task of the European refugee crisis. Policymakers and citizens must work together to develop strategies for dealing with arrivals who reject democratic and egalitarian values, while supporting those who strive for citizenship with all its rights and obligations.

“At the end of the day,” says Geri Dimitrov of Deutsch ohne Grenzen, “we all have to get along.“