The expats working overtime for refugees

As exhausted and destitute refugees, mainly from Syria and Afghanistan, continue to arrive in Vienna one group of expats has been working overtime to gather and distribute donations.

The expats working overtime for refugees
Alex Hesling (centre) and fellow volunteers.

Alex Hesling is originally from the UK but moved to Vienna when she was 17 and now manages the Four Bells Pub in Vienna’s 4th district. Her boyfriend David O’Connor, from Ireland, owns the O’Connor Old Oak pub in the 3rd district.

Last week they set up an Expat and Austrian aid for Refugees group on Facebook – originally with the aim of gathering clothes, food and toiletries for the thousands of people now kept in the overcrowded Traiskirchen refugee camp near Vienna.

Since the weekend she, David, and other volunteers have focussed their efforts on taking donations to Vienna’s Hauptbahnhof, where a self-organised team is doing a fantastic job caring for exhausted refugees arriving on trains from Nickelsdorf, on the Hungarian border.

“We had space in the pub to store donations and we realized that lots of our expat friends in Vienna and also around the world wanted to help the refugees arriving in Austria but weren’t sure how to and don’t speak German,” Alex told The Local.

After setting up the Facebook group and a wishlist on the Amazon website, packages have been arriving from America, Canada and Holland – and Vienna-based expats have been turning up with bags stuffed with donations. “We now have 200 boxes filled with sleeping bags, clothes and tents – people have been brilliant”, Alex said.

The storage room where donations are sorted.

The team at Hauptbahnhof have been telling Alex and David “exactly what they need, and we’re only five minutes away,” Alex said. “We’re like an emergency response team! We’re open until midnight so have had many late night phone calls from people.

For example a youth centre has been opened in the 16th district, where all the unaccompanied minors from Traiskirchen – about 100 of them – have been taken as it was becoming dangerous for them to stay there. We got a call at 10pm that they needed bedding, sheets and pillows, which we delivered, and later that night we were sent a photo of them all in their new beds.”

She admits that she is exhausted as she and David have been organising donations on top of managing the pubs and are working 14 hour days, but “it’s been completely worth it”.

“We plan to take truckloads of donations to Traiskirchen in the coming weeks, to help families there build their new homes. We’re getting new people coming to volunteer with us every day – and I think we can keep the momentum going, definitely until the end of the year. We’re also supplying things for the convoys travelling to the Serbian border, where conditions are reportedly awful.”

Donations of money from international friends are “being funnelled to the people most in need – such as traumatised Syrian children living here, so that they have school supplies and counselling.”

She thinks that Austria’s “open arm policy has been amazing. Vienna is a city which was built on immigration. Most Austrians here are accepting of new people – and the incredible response from the volunteers at the train stations shows that they don’t want to wait for the government to do something, but will take things into their own hands.”

“A few weeks ago people in Austria weren’t that engaged but after spending one day at the train station, it really brings it home – these refugees are just like us, they were doctors or teachers, and they’ve been forced to leave their homes”.

She said she “wants to spread the message that this is nothing to be afraid of. Yes, it is change, but if we welcome people with open arms it will make the transition easier for all of us.”

At present donations of sleeping bags and tents are urgently need for the refugees who are having to sleep outside, as well as baby foods, non-perishable foods and hygiene products such as wet wipes and disinfectant gels. Follow the Train of Hope group for up-to-date requests from Hauptbahnhof. 

A team of clowns cheers up refugee children at Vienna's Hauptbahnhof. Photo: Johanna Godwin-Seidl


MAP: Who are the foreigners in Austria?

Austria's recent Migration & Integration report paints a detailed picture of who are the immigrants in the country, where they come from, the languages they speak at home and more.

MAP: Who are the foreigners in Austria?

More than a quarter of Austria’s population has a “migration background”, which, according to the statistics institute Statistik Austria, means that they have parents who both were born abroad, regardless of their own nationality or place of birth.

Though migration is a controversial topic for some, Statistik Austria made it clear that if not for it, the country would simply stop growing.

“Austria’s population is growing solely due to immigration. Without it, according to the population forecast, the number of inhabitants would fall back to the level of the 1950s in the long term”, says Statistik Austria’s director general Tobias Thomas.

READ ALSO: IN NUMBERS: One in four Austrian residents now of foreign origin

Who are the foreigners in Austria?

Not every person with a migration background is considered a foreigner, though. Many of them have parents who were born abroad but naturalised Austrians before having children, or they themselves became Austrian citizens later on.

This is why despite 25.4 percent of the population having a “migration background”, the number of people with foreign nationalities is slightly lower at 17.7 percent.

So, who are these people? 

German is still the most common nationality among foreigners in Austria (218,347 people). But much had changed since 2015 (when there were 170,475 Germans).

The number of Romanians has almost doubled (from 73,374 to 140,454), bringing them to the second-largest foreigner community in Austria, behind German citizens.

In 2015, Turkish was the second-largest foreign nationality in Austria (there were 115,433), but they are now the fourth (with 117,944 people), behind German, Romanian, and Serbians (121,643).

They are helping Austria get younger

In Austria, most people without a migration background (36.2 percent) are between 40 to 64 years old. The share is also quite large among those with 65 or more years, reaching 21.8 percent.

When it comes to people with a migration background, most are between 40 to 64 years old (34.4 percent), followed closely by the 20 to 39-year-olds (33.5 percent), and then the children and adolescents until 19 years of age (22 percent). Only 10.2 percent of the people with a migration background are older than 65.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How does the Austrian pension system work?

Regarding nationalities, Austrians have an average age of 44.8, followed by Germans, who average 41.1. The youngest populations are the Afghani living in Austria (24.9 years old on average) and the Syrians (26.3).

Immigration helps keep the Austrian population younger. (Photo by Huy Phan on Unsplash)

Language and education

People with a migration background living in Austria have a different educational profile than the population without a migration background, according to the Statistik Austria data.

They are more often represented in the lowest and highest educational segments and less often in the middle-skilled segment than the population without a migration background.

However, the educational level of immigrants is improving over time, on the one hand, due to increasing internal migration, also of higher educated people within the EU. On the other hand, as a result of the selective immigration policy toward third-country nationals by the Red-White-Red Card, the institution said.

READ ALSO: How Austria is making it easier for non-EU workers to get residence permits

In 2021, 19.4 percent of the Austrian population had higher education, such as a university degree, and 10.9 percent had only mandatory primary schooling. Regarding foreigners, 29 percent had university-level education and 25.1 percent had completed only their primary school years.

When it comes to children and the language they speak, German was the first language of about 72 percent of the four and 5-year-old children in elementary educational institutions in Austria.

READ ALSO: Austria ranked world’s ‘second least friendly country’

With just under six percent each, Turkish and Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian (BKS) were the most common non-German first languages. Around two percent each spoke Romanian, Arabic or Albanian, followed by Hungarian (one percent).

Less than one percent each for Persian, Polish, Slovakian, English, Russian and Kurdish, respectively, as the first languages. Languages other than those mentioned were spoken by slightly more than five percent.

And who is naturalising Austrian?

Not all foreigners become Austrian, even if they have been in the country for decades. One of the reasons is that the process is expensive, but also because it requires applicants to give up their previous citizenship – something many are unwilling to do.

READ ALSO: Could Austria change the rules around citizenship?

According to the report, in 2021, most foreign citizens who naturalised Austrian were from Turkey originally (1,100), followed by Bosnia (921), Serbia (782), Afghanistan (545), and Syria (543).

More than one-third of the people naturalising Austrian last year were already born in Austria, and most of the naturalisations were of young people between 20 and 40 years old.