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IMMIGRATION

Giving refugees dignity at a transit camp in Styria

Angela Kamper volunteers with the Catholic charity Caritas and gave us an insight into life at a refugee transit camp in Styria, close to the Slovenian border - where refugees spend a few hours or sometimes weeks before continuing their journey or applying for asylum.

Giving refugees dignity at a transit camp in Styria
Angela (second from right) with a refugee family. Photo: Kamper

The camp, which can accommodate up to 3,000 people, has been closed during the construction of a border fence at Spielfeld, but is expected to reopen in the next few days, with thousands of refugees and migrants predicted to cross into Styria on a daily basis.

“People are traumatized and weak when they arrive,” Angela said. She described their empty eyes, and said that some refugees are aggressive and in pain. Some have open wounds or broken bones – especially broken arms. There are a lot of old people using crutches and wheelchairs.

New arrivals from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq are greeted by between five and ten translators and up to 50 Red Cross and Caritas volunteers who give out blankets as well as toys for the children.

Sick and injured people, the elderly and children are the highest priority.  Every refugee is allocated a cot to sleep in, and given hygiene products and clothes. The showers and toilets are in containers in front of the hall.

Food is provided twice a day. In the morning the refugees get three slices of toast, butter and jam. In the evening they can choose a hot meal such as a goulash soup or tuna pasta.

People living at the camp are allowed to move freely and can leave the camp as they please. But Angela says that one problem is that there is nothing for them to do. Some adults play football with the children, others go for walks, play cards and start work on learning German.

Another popular activity is something the refugees call “going shopping”. Many of them have not had any new clothes for weeks but at the transit camp they have access to clean clothes which have been donated.  “When you give them clothes, you try to pick some in their favourite colours or in a style that would fit them. In return you get a big smile. It’s about small things like this,” Angela said, with a smile of her own.

But a feeling of misery, heartbreak and desperation remains.  “These people have been through so much trouble to get to Europe, but they always make an effort to start a conversation – asking ‘How are you?’” Angela said. “And when you take your time to listen, they slowly start talking.”

One story which stands out for her is that of a young couple. One of them lost their mother on the journey to Austria. She was diabetic but they were not able to get the right medication for her – and she died before they could reach Austria.

Youngsters at the camp. Photo: Caritas

Angela has has spoken to parents who lost their children, men whose families are still in Syria, and children and teenagers who are travelling on their own.

When Angela had only been working at the camp for a few weeks a young woman arrived with her newborn baby. The woman had given birth in Greece and she still had blood all over her clothes – she had not had a chance to change or to clean herself during her journey to Austria.

Angela was one of the first people the woman allowed to hold her newborn and said that they were immediately given medical care and are now both in good health. “You remember things like this. They stay in your mind forever,” she added.

Much of her time is spent with refugee children. “You notice how quickly they change,” she said. She describes how when they first arrive they are scared, and they draw frightening images in brown and black but as the volunteers gain their trust, the children slowly start drawing more colourful pictures of the sun, birds and flowers. Some children even paint the Austrian flag in red and white.

“Everyone is very thankful,” Angela said, adding that she admires how patient the refugees have been. At busy times, when bus loads of people arrive in Webling, they have to wait for hours before they are able to get back to their beds because the halls need to be tidied and sterilized, but Angela says there are no complaints.

“These refugees are searching for acceptance, respect, for a future but most of all, they are looking for peace,” Angela said.  She hopes that they will be able to integrate into Austrian life, learn German and get to know our culture and traditions.

“No border fences can prevent more refugees from entering our countries. People are on the move and it has reached the point where they cannot be stopped anymore,” she believes. For her, it’s clear. “We have to be ready to give them a home.”

Despite the volunteers’ efforts there is an atmosphere of uncertainty in the transit camp. Questions like “When will we be able to continue our journey?” are heard on a daily basis. “It is tiring,” Angela says sadly. “Sometimes you just have no answers to their questions.”

“It’s not an easy task. You take the experiences home with you – and dream about what happened throughout the day. But, nevertheless it’s a beautiful job. I want to give people their dignity back – even if it’s just for a few hours.”

By Theresa Vogrin

IMMIGRATION

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.

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