Vienna integrates young migrants with free college

In Vienna, the left-leaning capital of the only western European country with a far-right party in power, welcoming immigrants can be a delicate balancing act. 

Heinz-Peter Bader/Reuters
Demonstrators perched on the roof of the conservative Peoples' Party headquarters in Vienna on Feb. 1 protest the party's coalition with Austria's anti-immigration Freedom Party. Their banners read 'stop rabble-rousing' and 'stop racism.' Despite Austria's far-right government, the city of Vienna offers free classes to migrants to help them gain basic language skills and an education.

Like most teenagers, Ranim has yet to decide on a career. But the 17-year-old is certain of one thing: She must keep studying to make up for the time she spent out of school, fleeing the war in Syria to reach Austria's capital.

Each week she and about a thousand other refugees and asylum seekers attend a free, council-run college set up by Vienna's authorities to help young migrants learn German, get counseling, gain basic education, and integrate into society.

"As a refugee we need to know the language. At the same time, we need to keep learning the basic subjects in school like mathematics and English," said Ranim, who two years ago became one of Vienna's nearly 1.9 million residents.

"They created this college to give us more chances," said Ranim, who declined to give her full name for privacy reasons.

As more people move around the world – spurred by conflict, climate extremes, and poverty – the cities and countries that host new arrivals are trying to figure out what kind of welcome to offer.

Investing in the new arrivals, to prepare them to integrate into a new country, can cut the need to support them long term – but can sometimes also provoke resentment from local people who may not be offered similar services.

In Vienna, the left-leaning capital of the only western European country with a far-right-wing party in government, finding the correct balance can be particularly delicate.

Migrant inflow

In 2015, Austria took in asylum seekers equivalent to more than 1 percent of its population, most of them escaping conflict in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.

With about 93,250 refugees already living in Austria and tens of thousands of asylum applications in the system, according to the the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Vienna's city councilors say helping migrants become part of their new country is crucial.

"We felt there was a political obligation to support refugees from day one so that they have better prospects and better chances for a job," said Philipp Lindner, a spokesman for Vienna's education and integration department.

But Vienna's welcome for refugees is in some ways in direct opposition to the views of the national government.

In December, Austria's anti-immigration Freedom Party and Chancellor Sebastian Kurz's conservatives struck a coalition deal to share power.

Both of Austria's ruling parties have pledged to cut benefits for refugees and have warned that Muslim "parallel societies" are emerging in cities like Vienna.

City spokesperson Mr. Lindner said the college for migrants is part of a wider council-led scheme to help them assimilate.

It includes sessions on how to access healthcare, education, housing, and other services, as well as courses on sexual health, rights, and cultural values.

Maria Steindl, who has managed the Youth College since its inception in 2016, said that without this free education, young migrants "would be on the streets. They would not have jobs."

"We are building a base so they can make their next steps," she said.

Urban refugees

Today some 60 percent of refugees worldwide live in cities, UNHCR says.

That trend constitutes a significant shift from the traditional response, adopted by the UN a half-century ago, of sheltering displaced people in camps.

But cities are sometimes struggling to adapt to the new responsibilities.

Mayors say city authorities are increasingly called on as first responders to meet migrants's basic needs, and are also required to take long-term responsibility for their well-being.

"Big cities have more challenges with migration than the countryside [does]," Lindner told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone. "It's the cities that have the obligation to provide housing, education, and ... social welfare services."

Last October, UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi said he believed cities should be given a bigger voice in deciding and implementing measures to deal with migration.

Planning ahead for migrants and implementing long-term integration programs is a cost-effective way for cities to deal with new arrivals, said Julien Simon of the Vienna-based International Centre for Migration Policy Development.

"When you don't deal with an issue and you keep on postponing it, you will pay the price at some point," said Mr. Simon, who is head of the center's Mediterranean branch in Malta.

Helping migrants participate in city life is a "win-win" as it helps them contribute positively to their new communities, he noted.

Brighter future?

At Vienna's Youth College, however, Steindl said it was challenging to keep asylum-seeking students motivated against Austria's unfriendly political backdrop.

"Getting asylum status knocked back is a blow to their motivation. But that is the political framework in which we have to work," she said. "The best thing we can do is to invest in the training and education of these young people."

For Iraqi refugee Alaa Al-Dulaimi, the college has offered a chance to finish his interrupted high school education.

"I didn't go to school for almost three years, so I have forgotten a lot of subjects," said Mr. Al-Dulaimi, who arrived in Austria at the end of 2014, when he was 17.

With the help of social workers and teachers, the 20-year-old now hopes to pursue further studies, find a job, and settle in Vienna for good.

"I feel very welcome. I have lots of friends from Austria. They are very kind people," he said.

This article was reported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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