Passing through: asylum seekers in Vienna on their way to Germany © Getty
Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

In mid-April, rightwing extremists stormed a University of Vienna lecture hall where asylum-seekers from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria were performing a play, The Protected, by Elfriede Jelinek, the Austrian winner of the 2004 Nobel Prize for literature. The intruders threw fake blood at the audience and leaflets with the slogan “multiculturalism kills”.

This incident highlights the tensions which have accumulated in Vienna since almost 700,000 refugees and migrants, mainly Afghans, Iraqis and Syrians, surged last year through Austria, a country of 8.5m people, in search of European sanctuary. Politicians and civic leaders who condemned the storming of the play say it was untypical of the generosity and sympathy that Vienna’s citizens, on the whole, have shown towards the refugees.

“The civic response last year was great,” says Beate Meinl-Reisinger, deputy chair of Neos, a liberal political party founded in 2012. “People saw the refugees lying in the mud, without tents, and they stood up and helped in a big wave. I was very impressed and moved. Now we have to build houses, create jobs and find places in schools for them. If we don’t do this, then we’ll have a real integration crisis in the future.”

Most of last year’s arrivals passed relatively quickly through Austria on their way to Germany and Sweden, but some 90,000 asylum-seekers are still in the country. According to interior ministry officials, Austria received 17,000 asylum applications in 2013 and 28,000 in 2014. Then the number soared to 89,000 last year. Up to mid-April, there have been 17,000 applications so far in 2016.

Under a burden-sharing agreement between Austria’s federal government and the nation’s nine provinces, the provincial government of Vienna is obliged to accommodate 20 per cent of the asylum-seekers — that is to say, 18,000 out of 90,000. In practice, the Vienna region has taken in 20,800, probably reflecting the preference of asylum-seekers for finding shelter in a big city rather than small towns and rural areas.

For Vienna, the experience of receiving newcomers is nothing out of the ordinary. In the postwar era the capital has absorbed refugees fleeing the clampdown on the 1956 anticommunist uprising in Hungary; refugees from the 1968 Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia; and refugees from the 1981 imposition of martial law in Poland that suppressed the patriotic Solidarity movement.

Much has changed in the past 25 years, observes Hannes Swoboda, an elder statesman of Austria’s ruling Social Democratic party. “Vienna has become a multicultural, multilingual city. On the trams and metro, you hardly hear Viennese German spoken. It’s either German as spoken in Germany, or the languages of the Balkans, the Middle East, the Caucasus,” Mr Swoboda says.

He recalls the “Turkish ghetto-like parts of the city” that emerged after the arrival from the 1960s onwards of Turkish Gastarbeiter, or guest workers, but he says that levels of social integration are much higher for the children and grandchildren of these Turks.

“Now migrants come from further away — Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan. This has angered a lot of people, who feel that ‘this is no longer my city’, especially those either originally from Vienna or other parts of Austria,” says Mr Swoboda.

According to city officials, some 50 per cent of Vienna’s 1.8m people were either born abroad or have at least one parent who was. Some 24 per cent have non-Austrian passports.

The tide of humanity flowing into Austria has receded in recent months, partly because the government has passed tough asylum laws and imposed some of the tightest border controls in the 28-nation EU. The government has pledged to accept no more than 37,500 asylum claims this year.

The asylum laws drew criticism in May from Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the UN human rights commissioner. “Austria was a leading European country for the defence of human rights globally for a long time. There must be conformity between what you say to other countries and what is applied domestically,” he said.

At home, liberal-minded critics say the clampdown on refugees reflects the government’s fear that the far-right Freedom party will exploit anti-immigrant sentiment to win Austria’s next parliamentary elections, due in 2018. They also doubt that the new frontier controls will be effective.

“We’ve basically closed our borders, which is clearly not a solution. If people can get across the North Korean border to escape, they can surely get across ours,” says Anna Müller-Funk of the University of Vienna’s Human Rights Research Centre.

Showing that the civic impulse to assist refugees remains strong, she and her colleagues will launch an online guide on June 20 to the administrative, educational, medical and other city services available for refugees. Called “New Here”, it will be in Arabic, English, Farsi and French. “The goal is to help newcomers find their way around the city themselves and provide them with a degree of independence,” says Ms Müller-Funk.

Get alerts on Austria when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Comments have not been enabled for this article.

Follow the topics in this article