The Viennese response to the region’s refugee ‘crisis’

While some Viennese are fearful of migrants, most in the city are fearful for them

by Courtney Fox

VIENNA, Austria –Many Viennese are eager to give aid to the refugees streaming in from places like Syria, but this goodwill often competes with concern for what immigration could mean for Austria and Austrian ways of life, residents here said.

tfrank copy.png
Dr. Tibor Frank, professor of history at the department
of American Studies at Eötvös Loránd University in
Budapest and a faculty member of International
Education for Students Abroad (IES) in Vienna

Vienna is known for the liberal thinking of its people, including a willingness to commit public resources to relief for refugees from war-torn places, according to Dr. Tibor Frank, professor of history at the department of American Studies at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest and a faculty member of International Education for Students Abroad (IES) in Vienna. But this goodwill has its limits.

“Austrians are very likely to be kind to immigrants, but not terribly eager to integrate them,” Frank said. “It’s never been the policy of Austria to accept large numbers of migrants.”

Outside of Vienna, sentiments turn sharply to the right, meaning an anti-immigration consensus that puts Austria first.

Immigration “has caused something of a split in the country,” Frank said. While Viennese are sympathetic, the more conservative parts of the country believe “newcomers shouldn’t come in and disrupt Austrians’ ancestral home,” he said, calling this sense of sacred homeland largely a myth. “They don’t want their living standard to go down. They believe, ‘This is my country. (Migrants) should stay at home.” 

Nowhere was this divide more clear than in the May election for Austria’s presidency, a mostly ceremonial position, but an election seen by most as a referendum on the country’s policies with respect to immigration. In a hotly contested, multi-round election, the Green Party candidate, Alexander Van der Bellen, nosed out the nationalist Norbert Hofer by just 30,000 votes.

Where are they?

Despite the stakes, a visitor to Vienna might be caught off guard by the lack of evidence of any such “crisis.” Walking through most of the city’s 23 districts, a visitor might not even realize that Austria, one of the world’s richest countries, has been one of the countries most impacted by the refugee crisis.

“It’s easy to live your life and not be affected,” said Meral Kölblinger, health and safety coordinator for IES. “It is a sad truth. . . . It’s easy to avoid the situation, if you wish.”

Though many districts of Vienna seem completely untouched by the “crisis,” other areas are being deeply impacted.

Susana Sernett, the institutional relations and events coordinator at IES, said she did not notice the crisis firsthand until the fall of 2015.

“Along the Ninth District I saw these people washing their clothes with a fire hydrant and drying them on a playground,” she said. “It was just so heartbreaking.”

Sympathy for migrants 

Speaking with Viennese, it becomes clear that they are fearful, but not in the conventional way.

“We have fear not of the refugees but fear for them, concern for them and their well-being,” Kölblinger said. “You can approach the fear from both a liberal and conservative side. You can be worried that you do not have enough resources or space to help those in need, or you can shut yourself off and say that you are afraid about your needs for those resources only.” 

Viennese are concerned about how newcomers can be integrated into Austrian society, especially in such big numbers. Frank said Austria leads the European Union in the numbers of refugees per 100,000 citizens.

“No country can absorb so many people so suddenly,” Frank said.

Sophie Wegleitner, a barista at Schönbergers Café in Vienna and a native Austrian, said it’s easier to care about the crisis when you realize that you are helping people, not just numbers.

The best way to combat fear is through education, according to Clare Schocher-Döring, head of the local Red Cross’s Family Tracing Service.

“It’s normal to have fear but we only fear the unknown,” she said “So it’s important that you tell the people, ‘It’s okay if you have questions, but ask the questions, and I will tell you answers.’”

Even among those who are eager to help, there is concern about how long the country can care for the swelling numbers of migrants or refugees. Eventually, supplies will dwindle, volunteers will decrease and the moral urgency to help might fade.

“A crisis by its definition has a beginning and an end,” Schocher-Döring said. “This crisis will not have an end, and I think that scares us. I do not believe we can keep up the level of support we are having now.” 


For now, though, Viennese appear to be up to the challenge. Many Viennese have volunteered their time and money.

“I took part in the ‘Refugees Welcome’ demonstration and have donated food multiple times,” said Vienna native

Along the Danube River are graffiti and street art
commenting on political issues, including the refugee

Irene Einszweidrei. “I belong to this Facebook group with one of the volunteer organizations, and they post daily what type of things they need. I prefer that way of helping them, so I try to do it as many times as I can.”

Whether the Viennese wish to donate their time, money or simply help to raise awareness, there are hundreds of groups to from which to choose. One of these is Open Piano for Refugees.

Musicians of all ages and genres come together twice a month to play for free in a public space, with donations going to refugee housing, food and medicine.

This type of outreach is more expected in Vienna than elsewhere in Austria because the capital city already had a rich multiplicity of people groups from other places, a fact evidenced by the dizzying diversity of ethnic food and cuisines to choose from in Vienna’s restaurants and eateries. And because the city has immigrants of different cultures already, it is used to the clashing of cultures and fears of the unknown.

“Foreigners are more likely to go to the big cities, to globally minded places that tolerate otherness,” Frank said. “In a big city you can hide. In a small town, you can’t do this.”

Wegleitner, the barista, said ultimately it shouldn’t matter where you are from or where you end up because of our shared humanity.

“For me, I don’t think there is a difference between me and a refugee,” he said. “Of course our stories are different (and) the lives we lead are different. But they are humans just like we are.”

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