Before starting this trip, I knew that migration was a difficult task. We hear about migration on the news and the difficulties migrants face with predatory smugglers, overflowing inflatable boats, and convert border crossings. What I was unaware of is the additional difficulties that migrants face and their severity, such as the conditions that force migration, deciding when and where to migrate, and the difficulties of integration in Europe.
One challenge that migrants face is the violence in their home country. One of the professors on the trip, Professor Ceka, and a group of students including myself were at the Prater, an amusement park in Vienna. While at the park we were discussing a talk we had just attended and Professor Ceka told us a story about one of his experiences in Macedonia when a civil war broke out in 2001 in his hometown. Listening to his story reminded me of how the majority of U.S. and European citizens have no concept of such dire circumstances, including myself, which makes empathizing with migrants difficult.
Another unexpected challenge migrants face that I knew nothing about is deciding when to leave their home country. Dr. Deckard and Dr. Heslins’ held a talk on what citizenship means and where rights stem from as a part of the study trip. During this talk we did an exercise in which we broke up into small groups acting as small families deciding “when to leave” our home countries as Dr. Deckard and Dr. Heslin told us current events in our home country. Our group decided to leave early because it was pretty obvious to us that the conditions in the exercise would continuously get worse before getting better. However this isn’t always true in reality. People will stay because the violence in their home country is far away from them, a family member has a well paying job, the family has assets like a house in the home country, or they have young children. Sometimes conditions do return to normal and the decision not to leave is justified. I had never realized how much families have to consider before migrating and how serious the implications of that movement can be.
This was especially poignant in badluck Aleppo, a play in which migrants from Syria and Afghanistan performed songs and told stories, some of which were about certain incidents that made them decide that they needed to leave. One such incident was a young man who took a taxi home, and the taxi driver held a gun to his head asking him which side he was on, the regime’s or the revolution’s. He smartly guessed regime and was not killed, but then shortly left the country. Such stories highlight how it is human nature to stay attached to a place for so long, and that it is often only when people are faced with extreme circumstances are they willing to leave everything behind for a foreign land.
However migrating to Europe doesn’t always guarantee a better life. Migrations efforts in Europe focus on integrating migrants with their host countries, which we learned about at the International Organization for Migration. There they explained that many migrants come across the border and apply for asylum, a process that often takes 6 months to complete. During this time the migrants are screened to determine their status (economic migrant, refugee, migrants under subsidiary protection, etc.), however most programs that the IOM can offer for migrants in Austria are only available to migrants with a certain status. This translates into lost time for migrants in the integration process, who receive no cultural training and very few language courses during those first six months. The IOM is dependent essentially on donations to run their projects, and the donations come with stipulations, primarily that the programs are for people who are already screened and approved to stay in the host country. These stipulations aim to give training only to those that will really need it, however the inability of the migrants applying for asylum to work or attend cultural programs means that they are pointlessly loitering, fighting among each other, or illegally working, often by selling drugs or by prostituting themselves.
Yet not even cultural programs will guarantee great outcomes for everyone. After badluck Aleppo I was talking with some of the refugees, and met one who was learning German for four months and was at the same proficiency I was. This really took me by surprise because I have been learning German for over eight years and was at the same level of proficiency. We had a great conversation and it was clear to me that he would integrate smoothly into Austrian culture. However this isn’t the case for everyone. At the Refugees Welcome stammtisch we met a refugee who had lived in Vienna for two years, yet his rudimentary knowledge of German and English made communication impossible and a friend of his translated our conversations. It was clear to Emma and I by the end of our conversation that he was struggling to integrate. But why was the refugee at badluck Aleppo and the refugee at the stammtisch at such different points in the integration process, despite having similar amounts of time in Austria? I started to wonder more about their lives before immigrating. Did they go to school? Were they literate? Could either of them write? Had either of them ever learned a second language before? How motivated were they to integrate? Does age matter for integration? Perhaps these differences can lead to dramatically different integration outcomes.