Assessing Austrian Policy Reforms: Practitioners’ Points of View

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Assessing Austrian Policy Reforms

Managing increasing uncertainty & conflicting understandings of integration

By Ivan Josipovic & Ursula Reeger | Austrian Academy of Sciences

As we discussed in our first blog entry, the summer of migration in 2015 left a considerable mark on Austrian politics and led to multiple policy reforms. Political debates on refugees’ rights and duties continue to this day, while the number of new arrivals has steeply declined and the situation of reception has largely normalized.

Under the framework of RESPOND, we spent the last months conducting interviews with eleven practitioners, who are active in the fields of asylum and integration. They are NGO members involved in the implementation of reception and integration policies, local administrative staff as well as human rights and border management experts. We were interested in what they perceive as enabling and constraining elements of a reformed system. Based on a preliminary analysis of the conversations, we consider it worth to highlight two issues that arise from the actors’ operational point of view.

Managing increasing uncertainty

For the interviewed experts, one topic that emerged as particularly important when it comes to recent reforms regulating the entry, asylum procedure and conditions to stay is that of uncertainty. The expression of uncertainty in terms of an inability to establish solid expectations about the future relates to both the ultimate recipients of policies and the non-governmental actors implementing policies. This might of course be related to the mere quantity of legal reforms in a rather short period, but issues also arise with regard to the specific quality of these reforms.

One example of increased uncertainty is the de facto extension of precarious legal and social conditions from the status of asylum seekers towards that of beneficiaries of asylum. On the one hand, persons are required to spend longer periods of time in Austria without opportunities to work or for other meaningful activities due to extended decision periods of the immigration office and an overall increased bureaucratic workload. On the other hand, once a person receives the status of asylum, he/she is initially only granted a residence of three years. Besides that, some federal provinces reduced social assistance for beneficiaries of asylum with a temporary residence and linked parts of the allowances to integration obligations. In 2018, the European Court of Justice ruled against this provision, arguing that it violated Directive 2011/95/EU.

Conflicting understandings of integration

Another topic of concern for our interviewees were the different understandings of integration between the federal level of politics on the one hand and the local level of politics as well as that of street-level bureaucrats on the other.

Accordingly, national discourses by policy makers often refer to integration as consisting of individual efforts and achievements such as language acquisition and passing tests on Austrian norms and values. These are to be delivered by those whose asylum application is approved relatively shortly after receiving this status. Our experts however argue that integration takes time and depends on structural opportunities.

They largely criticize how federal level politicians call on refugees to integrate but on the other hand diminish funds for targeted labor market integration, abolish apprenticeships for asylum-seekers and promote restrictive social aid models of certain provinces. Furthermore, they underline the crucial de facto role of municipalities regarding accommodation and integration, contrasting this with the lack of formal political competences and resources for providing sustainable solutions. Arguably, this local level is where integration or its lack is felt the most.