Austria finds new solutions as hospitality towards Ukrainian refugees sours
In the inaugural edition of the Fallout: As hospitality towards Ukrainians decreases across Europe, Austria, unexpectedly, could have a solution as it seeks ways to better integrate refugees into the economy.
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A red-headed boy dribbled a soccer ball as two girls chased each other toward a gated play area, passing a leftover Christmas tree draped in tinsel at the center of a makeshift cafeteria. A couple of young women sat down to a meal of pasta and tomato salad. This yawning sports hall in Vienna once operated as an intake center for Ukrainian refugees, managed by the organization Train of Hope. Now it functioned more like a community center. I sat with Manuela Ertl, a volunteer with the organization.
“The government was saying we are doing everything that is necessary,” Ertl told me. “But the actual government itself was doing nothing at all. They just outsourced it to private people.”
When I was in Austria earlier this month, some 80% of Ukrainian refugees were still housed by private citizens. Ordinary Austrians are exhausted by the demands made on them to accommodate Ukrainian refugees, so the government is now being forced to rethink the way it integrates migrants, a change that could impact the way other European nations accommodate those fleeing conflicts elsewhere.
When Russia invaded Ukraine, the Austrian minister of interior promised to help, “without bureaucracy,” Ukrainians who sought safety. It was a sharp U-turn by an administration that had for years treated immigration as a risk on par with climate change.
The Austrian government seemed pleased with its efforts, admitting tens of thousands of refugees and churning out “Blue Cards” that gave Ukrainians the right to live and work in Austria and to travel within the European Union.
According to the UNHCR, some eight million refugees from Ukraine have been recorded in Europe and about five million have registered for the various protection schemes on offer within the EU. These schemes give Ukrainians the option of staying in the EU for up to three years.
Now, though, as the war heads towards its second year, the mood is souring. Growing numbers of people say that the refugees are being treated better than citizens. Their anger is aggravated by the toll the war is taking on the cost of living in the EU, on the growing price of fuel and food.
Recent polling suggests Austrians have swung further right in response. The Freedom Party of Austria would garner more support than the country’s more mainstream parties, in part because more immigrants have flooded into Austria in 2022 than at the height of the European migrant crisis in 2015.
Out of necessity, anti-immigrant Austria might find itself moving towards a more practical and generous policy for refugees. While in the country, I learned, as reported here for the first time, that the government had quietly approved an amendment to the Aliens Employment Act, paving the way for Ukrainians to gain employment with fewer restrictions.
WHY IT MATTERS
At last count, over 90,000 Ukrainians are living in Austria. While Austria has taken in a substantial number of Ukrainian refugees, at just over 9 for every 1,000 inhabitants, it has taken in far fewer than say Czechia and Estonia, both at over 41 per 1,000, Poland at over 36, and even Germany at over 12.
In November, the mayor of St. Georgen im Attergau ordered the removal of temporary housing for Ukrainians. “We help when it’s necessary. But now it’s enough; now it’s too much,” the mayor, Ferdinand Aigner, told Austria’s Der Standard.
Of course, Austria is not the only European country in which the initial will to help Ukrainians fleeing the war has curdled into resentment.
But the mooted change to Austria’s Aliens Employment Act will allow Ukrainian refugees to find work more easily, lessening the burden on them and the potential employer. While they had always been granted the right to work, it also required that employers seek approval from an employment authority. Now that extra step will be removed.
These changes, according Lukas Gahleitner-Gertz from Asylkoordination, an organization monitoring asylum legislation in Austria, will positively impact not only Ukrainian but also Syrian and Afghan refugees.
Russia understands that immigration is an issue that sows division in Europe. Austria, albeit not formally a part of NATO, will know that NATO has, since 2016, been accusing Russia of weaponizing migration, of using immigrants to destabilize Europe. In 2021, for instance, it was said Putin was plotting to funnel migrants through Belarus into the EU through Poland, Latvia and Lithuania.
Millions of Ukrainians are adding to the immigration pressure, as governments want to appear both generous while remaining wary of fatigue.
“In terms of scope, we would have wished Austria would have had a more open approach to who is benefiting from the temporary protection status,” said Cristoph Pinter, the head of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Austria. Gahleitner-Gertz, from Asylkoordination, put it much more bluntly. The Austrian government, he told me, “doesn’t want to be more attractive to Ukrainians than the neighboring countries. It’s racist and schizophrenic and it’s tearing families apart.”
But reimagining the Aliens Employment Act could be a step towards positively integrating immigrants and lessening conflict. By loosening restrictions, among them hurdles to employment, Austria might enable refugees to be seen as contributors to the economy rather than as favored competitors for scarce resources.
As more refugees enter Europe, Austria, whatever its mistakes along the way, might yet show the way forward. A small legislative amendment, then, might have a disproportionately large impact on policies that can more effectively integrate all refugees across all of Europe.