Of the 50,000 refugees who are expected to come to Austria this year, many of them will be forced to do nothing whilst they wait for a decision on whether they can stay – a process which can take years.
Due to strict regulations currently just 200 asylum seekers (out of 35,000) have a work permit, and 106 of those are for apprenticeships. The majority of those work in the hospitality industry.
Hanan Mesleh fled from Palestine with her daughter, four years ago. She speaks Arabic, Hebrew, English and Russian and has a master's degree. She worked as a journalist before leaving Palestine but is not allowed to work in Austria because she doesn’t yet have a positive decision on her application for asylum.
She told the Kurier newspaper that when she lived in Upper Austria she worked two or three times a week for a charity, which was unpaid. Now she lives in Vienna in community housing run by Caritas and does some work as a translator, again unpaid.
She and her daughter have to live on €200 a month, and she can’t afford to spend money on necessary dental treatment for her daughter. “I’m very happy that I’m able to live safely in Austria, but this situation is frustrating,” she told the Kurier.
Three months after an asylum application has been accepted in Austria, the asylum seeker should legally be allowed to work but Caritas says that in reality this is very rare. “In fact it’s severely restricted,” Klaus Schwertner, the Secretary General of Caritas Vienna, said.
Since 2004 the rules have been tightened for short-term work permits for seasonal and harvest work and low-paid charitable work. Working also comes with the risk that if you earn more than €110 you end up losing basic health insurance once the job finishes.
Schwertner and representatives from other charities want asylum seekers to be allowed to work after six months of legal residence in Austria. “It is neither socially nor economically useful for people to be forced to do nothing for years,” he said. He added that having access to employment is one of the best forms of integration.
Social Minister Rudolf Hundstorfer has said that for him the priority is getting people who have been granted asylum into work as soon as possible. Currently 2650 Syrians, 2741 Afghans and 481 Somalis are listed as unemployed.
Since 2013 asylum seekers under the age of 25 have been allowed to do an apprenticeship – previously the age limit was 18. Permits are only granted for professions which currently lack apprentices.
Sadly, prostitution is one of the few employment opportunities where asylum seekers do find work. At the end of 2013, out of almost 3,400 registered prostitutes in Vienna 1.6 percent of those were asylum seekers, according to police data.