“Arrival” Infrastructures: Ukrainian Displaced People in Vienna

IWMPost Article

A research project launched by the IWM within its Europe-Asia Research Platform on Forced Migration and directed by Professor Ayşe Çağlar has explored the reception of the displaced people from Ukraine in Vienna.

In March 2022, Vienna, like other European cities, became a major arrival and transition hub for people fleeing the war in Ukraine. These cities had to find ways to manage and attend to the needs of those newly arrived in what would soon become the largest wave of displacement in Europe since the Second World War. The reception of these people in Vienna was shaped by the interplay of national and international legal frameworks as well as by historical legacies of managing forced and labor migration in Austria.

Not Refugees: Temporary Protection in Austria

Although the Ukrainian displaced are usually referred to as refugees, their status under the European Union’s Temporary Protection Directive is different in terms of legal status and rights. Designed in the aftermath of the Yugoslav wars to deal with mass influxes of people and introduced in 2001, the directive was activated for the first time in March 2022. While listing basic guarantees and rights, it does not specify the level of support or the mechanisms of implementation. As a result, EU countries had to decide how to put the directive into practice in their national legal contexts as well as how to provide the displaced with access to the labor market, basic social services, accommodation, and other spheres within its frame.

Austria’s decision to include the displaced from Ukraine in its system of Basic Care (Grundversorgung) became extremely consequential as this equated their support with that of asylum seekers, for whom this system was originally developed in the early 2000s. The Grundversorgung is generally characterized by a relatively low level of assistance: up to €260 per month in cash allowance for an adult plus up to €330 per month of accommodation allowance per family or else a place in an organized residence facility. In the latter case, the monthly cash payment is reduced to a minimum of €40 when people are also fed in such facilities. This relatively low level of assistance, as was suggested by some of our interviewees from involved NGOs, was meant to disincentivize potential asylum applications in Austria.

Over the past year, the Ukrainian displaced were subjected to the earning threshold established for asylum seekers within the Grundversorgung, which restricted their access to the labor market. Earning more than €110 (and an additional €80 per dependent) meant losing one’s entitlement to all support. This scheme not only left the displaced with inadequate means to support themselves but also worked against their incorporation into the official labor market and pushed some into informal employment. Currently, legislative changes are being introduced that would lead to a gradual reduction of Grundversorgung support in line with the size of earnings.

At the same time, unlike asylum seekers, the beneficiaries of temporary protection do not have potential transition paths to other statuses of international protection or legal residence in Austria that would come with rights to which different statuses entitle (for example, access to the general social security system or a path to citizenship). Thus, arguably, in the way the system functions now, people under temporary protection in some respects end up in a disadvantageous position compared to recognized refugees and people under subsidiary protection.

The Ordinary “Extraordinariness” of Mass Influxes

There is a pattern of approaching mass influxes of people in Europe as extraordinary and unexpected. This is manifested not only in the underdeveloped legal framework of temporary protection but also in the organizational strategies of responding to the influxes and treating them as singular precedents. In interviews, representatives of civil society and major NGOs often underlined the unpreparedness of the Austrian authorities for the mass influx of people even as the war in Ukraine was looming. They drew attention to how little was learned from the influx in 2015 and to the unwillingness to harness the continuity of institutional solutions. Many of the institutional structures established back then were soon dismantled as “unnecessary,” and thus organizational solutions yet again had to be developed from scratch in 2022.

Overreliance on Civil Society: Successes and Bottlenecks

Civil society largely shouldered the reception of people in Austria, especially during the first weeks of the influx. Due to the visa-free regime and the opened borders, those fleeing the war in Ukraine arrived directly in Vienna, which put a disproportionate burden on the City of Vienna, contrary to the legislatively established scheme in which the representatives of the federal state are expected to meet asylum seekers at the border. The city authorities relied largely on civil society finding resources and meeting the immediate needs of the displaced.

The civil society involved in the reception of the displaced formed a heterogeneous landscape of actors. Among them were major NGOs that acted on behalf of the Vienna authorities within the established system of outsourcing the management of asylum seekers to such actors. There were also volunteering grassroots initiatives and independent volunteers who provided systematic assistance and were more proactive, responding faster to the unfolding situation. Ordinary people who donated humanitarian aid and money or who offered private accommodation also played an outstanding role.

The heavy reliance on civil society to house and meet the needs of those arriving from Ukraine extended well beyond the first weeks of the war as the state proved reluctant to establish more systematic support schemes for them. The shortcomings of this arrangement became particularly salient as the volume of resources available through donations dwindled over time. This situation made apparent that overreliance on civil society is unsustainable and that systematic state support is needed. One of the consequent bottlenecks was the basic failure of the second line of reception—providing for people’s needs in the long term.

Overall, the response to the influx of the displaced from Ukraine developed into a patchwork of ad hoc tactics to address immediate problems, often with a relatively short horizon of planning. At the same time, these tactics were shaped by preexisting path-binding structures and modus operandi of major actors.

Navigating Life in Vienna: A Patchwork of Coping Strategies

Finding themselves in a situation shaped by the factors described above, displaced people had to develop a patchwork of coping strategies to sustain themselves in Vienna in the long term. Due to the insufficient level of assistance to cover basic needs, they had to secure additional sources of support. This includes using up their savings and seeking diverse forms of earning in Austria or from elsewhere, remittances from relatives or friends, benefiting from accommodation provided for free or at a lower than the market price and relying on various forms of humanitarian aid.

Despite the promise of temporary protection status and personal willingness, the majority were unable to find a job due to common European (language, recognition of diplomas and experience) but also specifically Austrian barriers (income threshold and the recently lifted AMS permit). This drove people to the informal labor market. Moreover, as the majority of those who fled were females, they often carried the double burden of securing resources for the subsistence and care of dependent children and elderly too.

Overall, despite the efforts and the engagement of various state and non-state actors, the strain and contradictions of this system had to be borne by the displaced from Ukraine. Their situation has been characterized by many struggles, shortages, and vulnerabilities. Many were driven to leave Austria for the unsafety of Ukraine. Notwithstanding this, our interviewees from Ukraine refused to succumb to despair and helplessness.

Rather than representing an exception, the situation of the Ukrainian displaced in Austria exposed the existing tensions and deficiencies of the established system of governing displaced people in Austria. The implementation of temporary protection in the case of the displaced from Ukraine has been in many ways shaped by the general erosion of international protection. In this situation, the temporariness of their status has been the breeding ground for temporariness of stay and possibly for enduring vulnerability.

Volha Biziukova is an anthropologist and postdoctoral fellow at Central European University. In 2019–2020, she was a visiting fellow at the IWM.
Ruslana Koziienko is a social anthropologist and a Ph.D. candidate at Central European University.
Anna Lazareva is currently completing her Master’s degree in political science at the University of Vienna.