Xenophobic Policies in the Name of Gratitude: Refugee Experiences with the Conservative Austrian Government

Written by: Emily Janicik

According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), “A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Most likely, they cannot return home or are afraid to do so. War and ethnic, tribal and religious violence are leading causes of refugees fleeing their countries.” In recent years, different labels for people who leave their homes have come into use: economic migrant, internally displaced person, illegal refugee, etc. Regardless of the label placed on an individual, negative forces such as war, political instability, economic downturns, religious persecution, and other factors are causing them to leave home.

Many people have welcomed refugees and migrants alike with open arms, helping them settle in new homes and learn the customs and language of the host nation. Not everyone is as enthusiastic about unfamiliar people coming to their cities, however, which can be attributed to the rise in populism and right-wing nationalism around the globe since the late 2010s. Many nationalistic, racist, and xenophobic politicians, political parties, and ideas have grown in power as people have become more polarized on issues, which has caused centrist political parties to collapse. “Public opposition to mass immigration, cultural liberalization, and the perceived surrender of national sovereignty to distant and unresponsive international bodies,” have influenced behaviors by citizens and governments alike, affecting refugee experiences in the long run.

One nation that has seen a large surge in populism is Austria. In the past, Austria has been overshadowed in the German-speaking world, namely by Germany. Austria has taken a much harsher stance on refugees, distinguishing itself from Germany and Switzerland. Lead by Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, the Österreichische Volkspartei (Austrian People’s Party, center right, ÖVP) and Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (Freedom Party of Austria, far right, FPÖ) have transformed the national dialogue on refugees. Looking forward, this paper seeks to answer many questions since this political shift. How does Austria’s unique historical and political background influence their refugee policy? How has the Austrian government dealt with refugees during the height of 2015 refugee crisis? How have the Austrian people reacted to the increase in refugees? How has the media influenced public opinion and political decisions in relation to the refugee crisis? These questions are some of the most important that define a nation, which this article will address.

Historical Background:

Austria has a rich history of a multiethnic and multilingual population, stemming back to the Austro-Hungarian empire in the 19th century. The Austro-Hungarian empire was composed of many different ethnic groups that spoke a variety of languages. At its peak, 52 million people lived in the empire, speaking over 11 languages, including German (23.26%), Hungarian (19.57%), Czech (12.54%), Serbo-Croatian (10.94%) and more. As migration to North America from Europe surged in the late 19th century, the Austro-Hungarian government sought to bring migrants back to the homeland. According to the U.S. Labor Department, nearly 40% of migrants originally from territory controlled by the Austro-Hungarian government returned between 1908 and 1923. Needless to say, the Austro-Hungarian empire fostered a diverse population both ethnically and linguistically. Leading into the 20th century, however, the celebration of diversity faded as Europe became more nationalistic.

Before and during WWI, there was strong sentiment from the Austrian population to be associated with the German empire. By creating the association of Austria with Germany, Austria would be perceived as having a higher status within world politics, which was important after the empire fell. After the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1918, many believed that Austria would be a “provisional arrangement” of the German government, but the Treaty of Versailles forced Austria to remain independent. Post WWII, however, “Austrians increasingly began to see themselves as a distinct national entity. The success of economic and political reconstruction provided strong incentives to identify with the political environment that had made this success possible.” Distinguishing themselves from Germany not only helped establish a unique culture, but also distanced them from the National Socialist Party and Holocaust. In 1946, Besinnung: Zeitschrift für Kultur und Geistesleben (a magazine for the “cultivation of the unique historical and political values of Austria”) published an article stating that “a new Austrian self-understanding must be rooted, above all, in a new illumination and exposition of our history.” This shift towards the nation-state mindset fueled a new wave of nationalism that can be seen still today in Austria.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, European politics have shifted dramatically, especially seen through the rise in right-wing nationalism. Since the 1980s, welfare and job security have declined in countries like France, Italy, and Spain, which strains the relationship between citizen and government. Political figures such as Marie Le Pen (National Rally in France), Donald Trump (Republican Party in the U.S.), and Nigel Farage (Brexit Party in the U.K.) have tapped into deep-rooted dissatisfaction within the working class through the decline in economic opportunity, using identity politics to sway voters. European societies are becoming more fragmented, “and some traditional (especially left-wing) parties are in decline. Identity politics has been exacerbating the contradictions of globalization as well as Europeanization.” Even though countries like Germany and Austria have shortages for skill-based jobs, many resent the fact that refugees are filling those positions rather than citizens of the home country. The idea of having a “nation-first” mindset has gained popularity, based on the fear of national politics and cultures being forced to change because of refugees. The decline in center politics has forced people to the margins, and many are choosing to endorse right-wing nationalism.

One extreme example of this shift in the EU is Sweden. Sweden has accepted the most refugees per capita in the EU and many believe “that immigration has brought crime, chaos and a fraying of the cherished social safety net, not to mention a withering away of national culture and tradition.” The Swedish Democrats, a far-right political party with neo-Nazi origins, received 18% of votes in 2019, a major increase compared to years prior. Increases in popularity of far-right parties can be seen all over Europe, from Sweden to the U.K. to Austria. These shifts impact policies for all, especially refugees.

To fully understand the Austrian government’s actions, the historical context of the refugee crisis must be defined first. Since 2011, the Syrian Civil War alone has put 13.1 million people in need, with 6.6 million internally displaced persons. In this time period, refugees and migrants came from conflict zones in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, as well as increased crossings from Africa. Just in 2015 alone, 1,321560 people claimed asylum in the EU (including non-EU states Norway and Switzerland), which has created large economic, linguistic, and cultural impacts on these member countries. While some countries have welcomed the refugees, like Germany, many are turning their backs and closing off borders that affect routes migrants can take to enter the EU. This leads to increased use of the more dangerous routes, specifically ones that involve the Mediterranean Sea. According to the UNHCR, “an estimated 2,275 refugees and migrants died in the Mediterranean Sea in 2018, making an average of six deaths every day,” a number that continues to rise.

Paths to Austria:

After World War II, “there was a relatively wide consensus within Austrian society that granting temporary asylum to people fleeing communist countries was a political and moral obligation, whereas the permanent resettlement should happen elsewhere,” and this notion is still upheld in modern times. Despite the fact that Austria’s government still believes they have little liability to help with humanitarian issues, Austria is blended well into the European economics. The European Economic Community (EEC) and European Free Trade Area (EFTA) were both established in the late 1950s, in efforts to decrease economic borders within Europe. Eventually, the European Union was created from the remnants of the EEC and EFTA in 1993, incorporating politics, laws, economics, and culture as the main components of its governance. As stated on the Austrian government’s official website, “As some 70% of Austria’s foreign trade is with EU member states, the internal market means significant savings for the Austrian economy. Since our accession in 1995, exports have tripled and 13,000 new jobs have been created per year.”  Concurrently, Austria joined the Schengen area in 1995, incorporating it into Europe further, by allowing EU citizens to travel through their country without border checks. While it appears as if Austria is well integrated into the EU, the current government has had many clashes with the Hague regarding border policy, specifically with refugees and asylum seekers.

Looking at Austria specifically, 88,340 people submitted applications for asylum, which translates into 10.3 asylum seekers per 1,000 inhabitants. It is also important to note that over 800,000 persons travelled through Austria during the height of the 2015 crisis. In 2016, the Austrian government proposed to cap the intake of asylum seekers and refugees at 37,500, far below the number of applications submitted. In response to the large number of people passing through the country, the Austrian government planned to potentially put up borders around the country to block off routes that refugees and migrants could take, which prompted international disapproval. In October 2015, the Austrian government announced plans to build a border with Slovenia to slow the flow of migrants. Although German and EU officials heavily criticized these actions, the government went through with the plan in December at the main border crossing between Slovenia and Austria. Additionally, closing the Austrian-Italian border was discussed in April 2016, which would effectively close the Balkan route. This would force more migrants to cross the Mediterranean Sea from Libya to Italy, a significantly more dangerous journey than traveling on land. In the end, the Austrian government did not build a hard border with Italy, but it did increase border patrols.

Austrian Government Policies:

Before explaining the Austrian government’s actions towards refugees, it is important to understand the current discourse within their political system. As stated before, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz is the head of the ÖVP and had a majority coalition with the FPÖ and SPÖ (Social Democratic Party of Austria). The ÖVP and FPÖ both took hard stances against welcoming refugees in 2015, which is the issue that catapulted Kurz as a main player in the mainstream Austrian political discourse. The FPÖ claimed that they would “put an end to “migration into the Austrian welfare system” once and for all,” which is a task that is not very achievable, but does well during campaigns when drawing on voter’s emotions. From 2015 to 2019, these two parties were somewhat successful in publicizing policies that punished refugees, though a majority did not go into effect, due to unpopular opinion or the fact that they were unconstitutional according to EU law. But, during the last round of elections on October 1st, 2019, the FPÖ saw a significant drop in its support, going from 26% in 2017 to 16.2% in 2019, which can be partially attributed to scandals within the party. On the other hand, support for the ÖVP went up to 37.5%, a historical high level for the party. This paper will analyze policies from the 2017-2019 parliament coalition, since a new coalition has not been established yet.

The conservative Austrian government is attempting to make it much more difficult for refugees to apply and be approved for asylum in many ways. Pre-arrival, the government re-established border controls and set up registration offices for those who wanted to apply for asylum, which would force people who are already in Austria to go to those locations. One of the proposed criteria to be approved for asylum would be to show that by going back to the original country, they would likely face torture or death. This proposed policy has many problems; it is difficult to prove these requirements with conclusive evidence, and the approval process will be inherently subjective. Chancellor Kurz also suggested that the EU dispatch send border guards to Northern Africa to send “illegal migrants” back to their home or transit country. Although the main reasoning behind his idea is to try to stop smuggling and human trafficking, this policy would be illegal according to international law if the refugees are fleeing persecution or war.

Post-arrival, the Austrian government is making refugee life more difficult through imposing language requirements. Since the process for approving asylum paperwork can take up to two years, refugees are immediately enrolled in language classes as they arrive. Chancellor Kurz has proposed to cut the amount of language classes offered, however, as an attempt to curb spending on non-Austrian people. In addition, language tests would be conducted at an advanced level for those who are granted asylum. Under the proposed law, refugees who do not pass the exam would receive €300 less per month in welfare benefits, which is a large loss from the original €863 per month. Furthermore, the decrease in welfare payments will carry over to child benefits as well, which in combination with the language requirements, will cause child poverty rates to rise. This law from Chancellor Kurz and the ÖVP is a deliberate attempt to hurt the refugee population in Austria; it is unreasonable to reduce access to language courses but expect increased language comprehension. Likewise, “tying basic human rights to social benefits is highly problematic,” according to language experts. Even though there have been large amounts of public disapproval, the Austrian government does not care whether the proposed policy abides by EU law until it goes through the judiciary system.

In addition to punishing refugees for not passing language exams, the Austrian government has proposed immediately deporting refugees in training and educational classes who are not approved for asylum back to their “home country”. This could impact up to two-thirds of the 1,043 asylum seekers in training in Austria. This policy is counterintuitive for Austria, and it is a thinly veiled ploy by the government to get rid of refugees. To begin, the people in training will go into industries that have worker shortages, which is a large problem for the Austrian economy currently. Many Austrians who work in these industries have had “very positive experiences with young refugees in training or education,” thus causing them to oppose this policy. From an economic standpoint, Austria would lose approximately €100,000 per deported asylum seeker. As stated earlier, the Austrian government is cutting language classes and welfare benefits to save money, but deporting refugees in training would completely counteract those economic gains.

One of the most provocative policies that the state government of Landrat (lower Austria) has created is the so called “Ten Commandments” for refugees to follow. In the proposed policy, migrants have to:

  • “Learn German
  • Adhere to Austrian laws
  • Adopt “Austrian values” and raise children in accordance with them;
  • Resolve conflicts nonviolently
  • Respect religious freedom
  • Prevent unnecessary suffering to animals
  • Show gratitude to Austria”

This policy was created by Gottfried Waldhäusl, who belongs to the FPÖ and is known for tough migration stances. According to Welt, “he had a refugee shelter built in Drasenhofen near the Czech border for young “notorious troublemakers,” and young people could not leave without a security guard. The proposed “Ten Commandments” show that the Austrian government wants to pursue a path of assimilation as opposed to integration for refugees, which could lead to trouble in the future. Although it is important to learn the language and cultural values of a new country, forcing asylum seekers to completely abandon their home traditions in order to “adopt Austrian values and raise their children in accordance with them” will prove unpopular and ineffective in the long run. Rather than letting these people come to terms with these large changes in life on their own, this policy will create resentment towards the Austrian government. As Viet Thanh Nguyen has written, refugees should not have to be grateful to a host country, because generally host countries are partially the reason they become refugees, due to their foreign policy influence. While Austria did not directly influence the Syrian Civil War, the effects of colonialism are long lasting and not forgotten. In the mildest case, this proposed policy will create resentment in refugee communities towards the Austrian government. On the other side of the spectrum, attempting to enforce a policy rooted in xenophobia that is very subjective could prove disastrous for refugees and migrants living in Austria.

Media Influence in Austria:

While government stances on issues is important to how public opinion is formed, so is media coverage as well. The Austrian media has played a large role in swaying public opinion during the 2015 refugee crisis, with media outlets and journalists acting as gatekeepers for public knowledge. According to Natascha Zeitel-Bank, “In the year 2015, no topic dominated the political and media landscape more than the refugee situation. It divided the opinion of the entire population in favour of or against the welcoming of refugees. The way the media presented this topic may have contributed to reinforcing and promoting prejudice or to expanding solidarity and support.” In her study, Zeitel-Bank looked at the Austrian Press Council’s ethics violation cases, and found that around 90% of violations were committed by tabloids like Kronen Zeitung, Österreich, and Heute on negative coverage of refugees and asylum seekers. When looking at specific articles, it can be observed that reports on crime use negative tones more frequently when a non-Austrian nationality is mentioned, whereas nationality generally is not mentioned for Austrian committed crimes, which “reinforces the impression that nationality might be a reason or motive for crime.” This style of reporting has a large impact on public opinion, because it can create unconscious and conscious biases within the mind about certain groups of people, in this case refugees. Moreover, the government can then take the so called “popular opinion” and base policy decision off it, leading to harsher policies for refugees. Media influence plays a large role in the refugee discourse within Austria, for better or worse.

Since the rightwards shift to conservatism from the 2015 refugee crisis, it is safe to conclude that the Austrian government has deliberately attempted to create policies that leave refugees in constant confusion about whether they will ultimately be allowed to stay in Austria. Whether it is reducing language classes, challenging the EU with unconstitutional laws, or imposing assimilatory “commandments” on refugees, the Austrian government has clearly diverged from the Willkommenskultur shown in early 2015. Moving forward, it will be up to the Austrian people to fight for the fair treatment of refugees within their society, through protests, elections, and more. Since refugees and migrants will never just disappear to the margins of society, it is imperative that the Austrian government starts to treat them as they would treat their own citizens.