Refuge cities In the first of a series of despatches on how Europe’s cities have responded to the migration crisis, Jon Henley visits Vienna, which welcomed refugees last September – but is now wrestling with the challenges of integration

Few in Vienna will forget 5 September 2015. The previous afternoon, a long, desperate file of refugees and migrants had set off on foot from Budapest’s packed Keleti station to the Austrian border 150 miles away.

By the time Austria awoke on Saturday the first refugees had arrived, bussed out of the country overnight by Hungarian authorities happy to be rid of them the minute the Austrian and German governments took the momentous decision to throw open their borders.

“It is a weekend I will remember my whole life,” says Sonia Wehsely, who – as the city of Vienna’s executive councillor for social affairs and public health – was ultimately responsible for the Austrian capital’s response.

“I called the mayor on the Friday and said: ‘It’s starting, we must act now. For us, there is no other possibility.’ There’s good cooperation here between the city, NGOs, charities, volunteers. So, well, we set it in motion. It had to be seamless.”

Whether as transit hubs, final destinations or sometimes both, Europe’s cities have been profoundly affected by the continent’s greatest refugee crisis since the second world war, as underlined in a new report from the EuroCities group, which surveyed 34 of its member cities from 17 EU member states plus Norway.

From Athens to Gdańsk, Genoa to Gothenburg, Mannheim to Zagreb, city halls have had to manage two parallel but distinct responses: to an emergency (beds, food, clothes, urgent medical care), and to a longer but equally demanding process (asylum, education, housing and eventual integration).

We have prepared for supporting you during your stay and as you continue your journey. You are safe.

The City of Vienna

Migrants Cross From Hungary Into Austria On Route To Northern Europe

Austria is often used as a transit hub for migrants crossing to northern Europe. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

The challenges are logistical, administrative, social, cultural and – in the face ofrising anti-immigrant sentiment across Europe and increasingly nervous governments – political. Vienna’s response began with a humble (and, after the miseries of Budapest, widely praised) flyer.

Handed out to the refugees as they got off the bus or train, it read: “Welcome. We have prepared for supporting you during your stay and as you continue your journey … Many Viennese are supporting us. We are doing our very best to organise assistance. You are safe. The City of Vienna.”

Over the following days, 65 emergency shelters were set up across the city, containing 10,600 beds. Police, health and social workers, 14 different NGOs – among them the Red Cross, Vienna Volkshilfe (People’s Aid), Samaritans, church groups such as Caritas – and thousands of volunteers produced a collective response that, Wehsely says, made her “totally proud”.

A Refugee Coordination Centre was created, run by Vienna’s city hall. A mobile phone app, website and hotline were launched to inform the public and list the most pressing volunteering and donation needs; plus, in time, a special refugee ID card to ease problems with health insurance and benefits.

Growing tensions

Six months later, much – though by no means all – has changed. After 788,000 migrants, many on their way to Germany and Scandinavia, passed through Austria and 300,000 through Vienna in a matter of weeks last autumn, the flow has dramatically slowed and the peak of the crisis has, for now at least, passed.

Red Cross shelter, refugee in Vienna

An Iraqi refugee waits to be granted an asylum status at the Red Cross shelter in Vienna. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Vienna has been left with around 21,600 refugees registered for basic welfare support, roughly half of whom are in the asylum-seeking process. Some 4,600 are still housed in large emergency shelters – mainly disused offices – with more than 200 beds, but most have now been found places in smaller homes and hostels in every district of the city.

“That’s very important, that there is no part of the city, even the wealthiest, with no refugees,” Wehsely says. “Residents were not asked their opinion. It was our policy, our responsibility as politicians. It’s one reason why, when you walk around the city, you cannot really feel this crisis.”

Nonetheless, the atmosphere is different to last autumn.

The city famously known in the interwar years as “Red Vienna” has been a bastion of the left since 1945. Half of its current 1.8 million residents are of immigrant origin: second and third generation Hungarians, Czechs and Poles, refugees from the 1990s Balkan conflict, Afghans and Turks.

In the run up to local elections last October, polls briefly suggested the scale of the refugee crisis might hand the city to the far right for the first time since the second world war, but Wehsely – along with the rest of veteran mayor Michael Haeupl’s Social Democrat city council – was eventually re-elected, much to the party’s relief.

Although defeated, the far right, anti-immigrant Freedom Party still took 31% of the vote – its highest score ever in a local election – and is now forging ahead in opinion polls nationally. Under mounting domestic political pressure, Austria’s federal government has performed a 180-degree turn on its open border policy of last September.

In February, after announcing it would allow only 3,200 migrants a day to enter the country (many of whom would travel on to Germany) and 80 new asylum applications, the government hosted a conference to coordinate tough new border restrictions with several countries along the so-called west Balkan refugee route, effectively closing it to refugees.

Migrants run to reach a train to Munich at the Westbahnhof Station on September 5, 2015 in Vienna, Austria

Migrants run to reach a train to Munich at the Westbahnhof station in Vienna. Photograph: Alex Domanski/Getty Images

This increasingly hardline stance, plus what Wehsely calls “very unhelpful language” from some sections of the media, means “the feeling is different now” in Vienna. Anti-migrant protests organised by the Freedom Party have led to clashes, with two arrests earlier this month during a 1,000-strong demonstration against a planned refugee shelter in the city’s Liesing district.

Farnaz Mortazi, who arrived in Vienna from Iran as a student in 1993, thinks attitudes will only harden. “It’s too early to tell how it will go, I think,” she says. “For the moment, a large majority of Viennese are really welcoming, they are good people in their hearts. But in two, three years’ time? I am not so sure. The far right is doing its worst, and like everywhere, people are susceptible to it.”

For the time being though, Wehsely thinks the city is doing a good job: “For a politician at my level, I have to solve actual, concrete problems every day. I think, on balance, we’re doing that – although some things are proving difficult. We still have too many people in big, anonymous shelters; we need more smaller places. But the priority now is to maintain our position on refugees, because that is what we were elected on – and to focus on effective integration.”

Education is key to that. Vienna has made it a principle to enrol every refugee child in a local school within two weeks of their arrival, and to offer intensive German as well as “living in Austria” classes to all.

In the Volkshochschule, or adult education centre, in the south-eastern district of Simmering, an Iranian teacher is taking a class of Afghan men through the complexities of the Austrian health, social security and administrative systems, in Farsi: health insurance cards, doctor’s visits, hospital specialists, maternity care, child benefit, family support for non-working parents, ID cards, passports.

Migrants families spend the night at Vienna’s train station (Westbahnhof) in Vienna

Last autumn, Austria’s state-owned rail company announced it would suspend train services with Germany to cope with a massive surge of refugee arrivals. Photograph: Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images

“It’s the fifth lesson we’ve had – on how to live here, really,” says Moshtaq Wafa, 20, who arrived in Vienna from Afghanistan in October. “How to buy tickets for a train or a tram, why we shouldn’t eat in the street or talk loudly on our cell phones, how we must talk to women … I want to stay here; it’s important to understand.”


Like nearly 5,000 fellow asylum seekers in Vienna, Wafa lives in a large emergency refugee shelter and is awaiting a move to longer-term accommodation either in Vienna or elsewhere in Austria. The process has slowed; Austria’s eight other states are proving reluctant to accept their quota of refugees, leaving Vienna with nearly 20% more than it should have.

One such shelter is in the former offices of the Kurier newspaper, in the city’s central 7th district. Until mid-March, this was the central registration centre for all asylum-seekers, handling around 250 new cases a day through the autumn. The number has now fallen to about 10.

Run by the Red Cross, the five-floor building also provided overnight accommodation for up to 600 people from more than 60 countries, but mainly Afghans, Syrians and Iraqis.

Felix Kugele, who manages it with a team of 28 staff and a small army of volunteers, says the centre now houses around 250 people, most of whom stay “a few weeks” before moving on. “During the height of the crisis, it was all mass logistics. Getting people registered, looking after their immediate needs, putting them on buses to somewhere else, either in Vienna or the other states.”

A young migrant child plays at the nursery at the Main Train Station in Vienna, Austria

A young migrant child plays at the nursery at Vienna’s main trains station. Photograph: Patrick Domingo/AFP/Getty Images

Now, Kugele says, “Things are more complicated. Many of the people we have now are quite complex cases – people without documentation, or who are registered elsewhere but are now here. Family reunifications, people with disabilities or other complex needs, some who’ve got into trouble.”

Dozens of mainly local volunteers cook, clean, translate and interpret, launder, sort and hand out shoes and clothing, teach German, paint and decorate, babysit, run the children’s room, accompany people to medical or administrative appointments, and organise trips – to the zoo, for example.

“We liaise with the police, social services, the city authorities,” Kugele says. “We organise medical treatment. We make sure people are taking their medicines. We look after children, so parents get a rest. It’s a huge load still, because the longer people are here the more specific their cases become.”

Looking ahead, Kugele is clear that integration will be the greatest challenge, “particularly for people from a very, very different world. Someone from rural Afghanistan is going to find it a lot more difficult than a family from urban Syria.”

At Haus Mihan, a home run by the Samaritans for 30 unaccompanied teenagers – 15 boys, 15 girls, aged between 14 and 18 – that opened in mid-December, manager Bettina Koller says she is most concerned by the Somali girls in her care. “It’s difficult for all of them, of course.

“Whether they’re from Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Eritrea – everything is completely different for them here. Everything. And they have seen so many terrible things; grown up too fast. We have seven or eight children here who have lost all contact with their families; one boy whose entire family was killed.

“They come to us as young adults but they are still children inside, and they have to learn to be children again. So we have to take things things step by step. Almost like primary school, except it’s not about rules – it’s about understanding. But for a girl from Somalia ... It is very hard. Their culture is so very different.”

The children in Haus Mihan, one of nine centres for unaccompanied children and 40 refugee shelters run by the Samaritans around the country, have four hours of German lessons every day and take part in any number of other activities, from yoga to football and guitar lessons to karate.

But despite all the intensive work, their future is by no means certain. Many, says Koller, will not now master German fast enough to attend a regular secondary school before reaching school-leaving age; only two of the 30 are currently enrolled at high school. Afterwards, apprenticeships will be equally hard to obtain. Their life chances have been horribly harmed.

Adam, 16, from Somalia, who took four months last year to walk to Vienna through Serbia and Hungary after crossing to Italy from Libya, is delighted to be in Austria – even if at first he thought he had reached Australia. “I am learning German as fast as I can,” he says, “and I want to go to technical college to study electrical engineering. That’s my dream.”

Ultimately, how close teenagers like Adam get to fulfilling their dreams will be the measure of how successfully Vienna – and every other European city affected by this crisis – has really opened itself to the refugees they have taken. “I just want the chance,” Adam says. “That’s all.”