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.
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.
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.
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.
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.