ANALYSIS: How do Austrians feel about the worsening refugee crisis?

Austrians across the political spectrum have showed support for a potential influx of Ukrainian refugees, with 200,000 predicted to make their way here. Austrian journalist Stefan Haderer asks whether this support differs from previous refugee intakes - and whether this support will waver?

People attend a demonstration against the Russian invasion of Ukraine in Vienna on March 5, 2022. (Photo by ALEX HALADA / AFP)
People attend a demonstration against the Russian invasion of Ukraine in Vienna on March 5, 2022. (Photo by ALEX HALADA / AFP)

The war in Ukraine which started less than a month ago may continue many more months or even years.

Europe has so far shown great solidarity with the Ukrainian people.

The UNHCR estimates that more than four million refugees could leave their war-torn country and seek asylum.

EXPLAINED: What would ‘Austrian-style neutrality’ mean for Ukraine?

While a majority of them move to Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary, Western and Central European countries are also preparing for new waves of migration.

About 200,000 refugees are expected to stay in Austria. Migration expert Gerald Knaus believes a lot more people will come than in 2015, the peak of the European migration crisis.

How does the Austrian population react to this new wave of refugees and asylum-seekers? And is public opinion, like in 2015, oscillating between “welcome culture” and growing resentment?

A new political narrative

Let’s take a look back to summer 2015: The war in Syria led to a massive wave of migration resulting in what has been termed as the “European migration crisis”.

Some Austrians were eager to help and assist Middle Eastern refugees in the beginning. However, a clear turning point was reached after New Year’s Eve 2015/2016, as videos of sexual harassment by migrants of Arabic appearance in Germany and Austria circulated.

Both the political and public opinion changed.

Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP) and his supporters clearly opposed German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s “open door” rhetoric and her mantra “Wir schaffen das” (“We can manage”).

Political experts agree that Kurz mainly owed his chancellorship and success to his restrictive stance on migration and asylum in that period.

A number of Northern and Eastern European leaders followed suit by embracing Kurz’s way.

Ukraine conflict: Would NATO protect non-member Austria?

As the war in Ukraine broke out, however, the conservative ÖVP and its new leader, Karl Nehammer, obviously changed their narrative.

The new Austrian chancellor and his cabinet aren’t tired of repeating that the present situation is “completely different” than 2015 and that “of course” Austria is willing to help Ukrainian war refugees.

Flights have now been organised to bring some of them from Moldova to Vienna.

Ukraine, whose western region was once part of the Habsburg Empire, is considered to be a “neighbour” in need of help.

A person hands out Ukraine flags at a rally opposing Russia's invasion in Vienna. Photo: ALEX HALADA / AFP

A person hands out Ukraine flags at a rally opposing Russia’s invasion in Vienna. Photo: ALEX HALADA / AFP

Still, Nehammer and other politicians reiterate that Austria is “not a number one destination” and only a “transit country” for those fleeing from the war.

Does this narrative have any effect on how the population assesses the new migration crisis?

To a large degree it does.

According to a recent poll by Peter Hajek, 85 per cent of the 800 Austrians interviewed supported the admission of refugees from Ukraine.

Probably the most surprising aspect of this survey is the fact that even 75 per cent of right-wing FPÖ voters accept Ukrainian war refugees in Austria.

These figures are in stark contrast to 2015, when most ÖVP and FPÖ voters were alarmed and demanded a more restrictive migration policy.

‘This crisis feels much closer to us’

In forums and on social media channels, Austrians reflect the political narrative that Ukrainians are “neighbours” and “real war refugees”.

“The Ukraine border is closer to Vienna than Bregenz,” some persons I spoke with said, repeating political statements.

“This crisis somehow affects us more.”

In their comments, many users compare the current crisis with 2015.

READ MORE: How Austrian states are preparing for Ukrainian refugees

Some argue that Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis were “economic migrants” rather than “war refugees”.

They stress that those who arrived in 2015 were “mainly young men” crossing a number of safe countries just to get asylum in Austria, Germany and Sweden, the countries with the most generous social security systems.

This definitely isn’t the case with the war in Ukraine: Mainly women and children left their country while the men were drafted.

In a recent commentary, journalist Barbara Coudenhove-Kalergi also emphasised that public perception is different although the causes are pretty much the same.

“The bombardment of Aleppo in Syria or Grozny in Chechnya was at least as horrible as the airstrikes on Kharkiv (Ukraine),” she notes.

Some social media users, however, believe the Geneva Convention was “abused” by refugees in 2015.

At present, they see stronger parallels to the Balkan wars in the 1990s than to the war in Syria.

Religion and mentality are another key factor to public perception.

A commentator on “Der Standard” puts it bluntly as he writes, “These people (Ukrainians) basically ‘tick’ like us.” – a statement likely to mirror the discourse in the ÖVP, a party relying on its Christian democratic roots.

However, despite all the empathy and support for Ukrainian refugees, some commentators express fears of an increasing finance and resource crisis linked to new migration flows.

Many Austrians expect the war to continue over a longer period. They also wonder if the refugees are going to return to their devastated home-country at all.

Others are angry that Ukrainians will be used as “cheap labour force” in Austria.

Critics warn that national deficit spending may reach new levels as debts are already soaring due to the Corona pandemic and the costly measures that the government still imposes.

In the Austrian population there is no doubt that more refugees will arrive in the country. Many citizens already offer their private apartments to accommodate refugees.

Some of them feel a need to do so because bureaucratic procedures are still rather complicated.

Vienna doesn’t have a large Ukrainian community.

Nevertheless, the city of 1.9 million inhabitants may turn out to be more attractive than other Austrian provinces.

Political disputes over which province should take how many refugees may soon arise. And then this debate wouldn’t be much different from 2015.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


Rapping, breakdancing Ukrainians win Eurovision in musical morale boost

Ukraine won the Eurovision Song Contest Sunday with an infectious hip-hop folk melody, boosting spirits in the embattled nation fighting off a Russian invasion that has killed thousands and displaced millions of people.

Rapping, breakdancing Ukrainians win Eurovision in musical morale boost

Riding a huge wave of public support, Kalush Orchestra beat 24 competitors in the finale of the world’s biggest live music event with “Stefania”, a rap lullaby combining Ukrainian folk and modern hip-hop rhythms.

“Please help Ukraine and Mariupol! Help Azovstal right now,” implored frontman Oleh Psiuk in English from the stage after their performance was met by a cheering audience.

In the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, the triumph was met with smiles and visible relief.

“It’s a small ray of happiness. It’s very important now for us,” said Iryna Vorobey, a 35-year-old businesswoman, adding that the support from Europe was “incredible”.

Following the win, Psiuk — whose bubblegum-pink bucket hat has made him instantly recognisable — thanked everyone who voted for his country in the contest, which is watched by millions of viewers.

“The victory is very important for Ukraine, especially this year. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Glory to Ukraine,” Psiuk told journalists.

Music conquers Europe

The win provided a much-needed morale boost for the embattled nation in its third month of battling much-larger Russian forces.

Mahmood & BLANCO  performing for Italy at Eurovision 2022

Mahmood & BLANCO perform on behalf of Italy during the final of the Eurovision Song contest 2022 in Turin, Italy. (Photo by Marco BERTORELLO / AFP)

“Our courage impresses the world, our music conquers Europe!” he wrote on Facebook.

“This win is so very good for our mood,” Andriy Nemkovych, a 28 year-old project manager, told AFP in Kyiv.

The victory drew praise in unlikely corners, as the deputy chief of the NATO military alliance said it showed just how much public support ex-Soviet Ukraine has in fighting off Moscow.

“I would like to congratulate Ukraine for winning the Eurovision contest,” Mircea Geoana said as he arrived in Berlin for talks that will tackle the alliance’s expansion in the wake of the Kremlin’s war.

“And this is not something I’m making in a light way because we have seen yesterday the immense public support all over Europe and Australia for the bravery of” Ukraine, Geoana said.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the win “a clear reflection of not just your talent, but of the unwavering support for your fight for freedom”.

And European Council President Charles Michel said he hoped next year’s contest “can be hosted in Kyiv in a free and united Ukraine”.

‘Ready to fight’
Despite the joyous theatrics that are a hallmark of the song contest, the war in Ukraine hung heavily over the festivities this year.
The European Broadcasting Union, which organises the event, banned Russia on February 25, the day after Moscow invaded its neighbour.
“Stefania”, written by Psiuk as a tribute to his mother before the war, mixes traditional Ukrainian folk music played on flute-like instruments with an invigorating hip-hop beat. The band donned richly embroidered ethnic garb
to perform their act.
Nostalgic lyrics such as “I’ll always find my way home even if all the roads are destroyed” resonated all the more as millions of Ukrainians have been displaced by war.

Kalush Orchestra received special authorisation from Ukraine’s government to attend Eurovision, since men of fighting age are prohibited from leaving the country, but that permit expires in two days.

Psiuk said he was not sure what awaited the band as war rages back home.

“Like every Ukrainian, we are ready to fight as much as we can and go until the end.

Britain’s ‘Space Man’

Ukraine beat a host of over-the-top acts at the kitschy, quirky annual musical event, including Norway’s Subwoolfer, who sang about bananas while dressed in yellow wolf masks, and Serbia’s Konstrakta, who questioned national healthcare while meticulously scrubbing her hands onstage.

Coming in second place was Britain with Sam Ryder’s “Space Man” and its stratospheric notes, followed by Spain with the reggaeton “SloMo” from Chanel.

After a quarter-century of being shut out from the top spot, Britain had hoped to have a winner in “Space Man” and its high notes belted by the affable, long-haired Ryder.

Britain had been ahead after votes were counted from the national juries, but a jaw-dropping 439 points awarded to Ukraine from the public pushed it to the top spot.

Eurovision’s winner is chosen by a cast of music industry professionals — and members of the public — from each country, with votes for one’s home nation not allowed.

Eurovision is a hit among fans not only for the music, but for the looks on display and this year was no exception. Lithuania’s Monika Liu generated as much social media buzz for her bowl cut hairdo as her sensual and elegant

Other offerings included Greece’s “Die Together” by Amanda Georgiadi Tenfjord and “Brividi” (Shivers), a duet from Italy’s Mahmood and Blanco.

Italy had hoped the gay-themed love song would bring it a second consecutive Eurovision win after last year’s “Zitti e Buoni” (Shut up and Behave) from high-octane glam rockers Maneskin.