One of the most surprising aspects about Vienna was the U-Bahn Stations. I was shocked by the stations’ lack of turnstiles and, thus, the implicit trust between users of the U-Bahn and the government. Without turnstiles, and with only occasional checks, the government expects that everyone who uses the U-Bahn purchases a ticket and – if it’s a single use ticket – validates it prior to boarding. In this way, the U-Bahn provides an interesting lens through which to examine the issue of migration in Vienna today.
In my pre-trip reflection, I referenced the finding that the more ethnically diverse a population, the worse the provision of public goods in that community (Alesina et.al. 1999). If government officials and voters can see themselves in the people aided by the services provided, they are more likely to fund them. “Seeing themselves in others” is simplified significantly if that individual looks like them or speaks their language. For much of recent history, it was easy for the Viennese to see themselves in their neighbors because of a lack of ethnic diversity. It’s easier to trust people that look like you – so why bother with turnstiles when everyone’s the same?
As we learned today at the Jewish Museum, that was not always the case. In the years leading up to World War II, more than 200,000 Jews lived in Vienna, compared to the 8,000 Jews that live here currently. In the wake of Hitler’s march into Austria and the subsequent years of Nazi rule, however, the overwhelming majority left or perished. The Austrian identity was, and in some ways still is, rooted in Roman Catholicism. Jews were outsiders and treated accordingly. When the Jewish population reached a historic low of 0.5 percent of the population in the 1970s, the U-Bahn officially opened. In the wake of the modern refugee crisis, the numbers of non-“Austrians” living in the city has grown once more.
At the Kuntshalle Wien, we attended “badluck Aleppo,” a play put on by a group of Syrian refugees. There, we heard the traumas they lived through in Syria, and what drove their decisions to leave. The Austrian government, like the US government, has an official resettlement program called the Humanitarian Admission Program (HAP). In 2016-17, the HAP provided structured resettlement for 400 Syrian refugees (1500 total over the lifetime of the program). These refugees are granted official asylum status upon arrival and provided with housing and a living stipend as well as cultural orientation trainings. According Katharina Benedetter of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), this quota is small compared to the sheer number of asylum seekers coming to Austria.
For those that can get officially recognized refugee status, Benedetter and IOM can provide cultural assimilation programs. For those that cannot – either because they’re already registered in a previous country of entry or because of intentional efforts by the government to classify them as something other than a refugee – the resources available are slim.
The system is set up to be intentionally complicated, restrictive, and difficult to navigate. The government explicitly creates these structures to render Vienna inhospitable to migrants. If the migrants don’t feel welcome, they will move on to another European country or city. In this way, the number of non-“Austrians” is kept under control. The implicit trust between members of the Viennese community can be maintained, and the open U-Bahn stations can continue. We discussed this issue of the “othering” of migrant communities extensively through a conversation facilitated by Drs. Deckard and Heslin on Saturday morning. The concept of “migrant” is one that is artificially constructed and distinct. What exactly constitutes a migrant? What constitutes an “other?” Alesina and co-authors define the “other” through a lack of shared experience, a lack of physical and ideological similarities.
The distinction between the migrant and the ex-patriate is a profound one – ex-patriates “look like” Austrians and have similar shared experiences of growing up among a cultural elite. Because of these similarities, and because of the misperception that ex-pat communities are adding to Viennese society while migrant communities are extracting from it, the othering continues. Ex-pats, neighbors, are like us and trusted, while migrants, refugees, are not. Artificial conceptions such as these are the basis for too many decisions on migration. An individual is a refugee if he’s fleeing persecution, war or violence across national borders, but an economic migrant if the reason he left the same location was because he was not able to make a living. By bucketing people differently, the Austrian government – and honestly, governments around the world – can limit the amount of aid and protection they legally need to provide. Human rights cease to matter when no one can enforce them. The migrant’s personhood is stripped away. So what does this mean for the turnstile-less U-Bahn stations?
The flow of migrants into Austria is not going to stop, even as the Austrian government refuses to raise the thresholds for legal migration. In the most likely future, those migrants will be forced into overcrowded, unsafe parts of the city with few resources. Their “otherness” will continue to be seen as a threat and trust will not be maintained. Turnstiles could be introduced in the U-Bahn stations. Another potential future does exist. Migrants could increasingly assimilate into Austrian society through programs provided by organizations like IOM and Refugees Welcome and funded by the Austrian government. Multiethnic neighbors could become the norm and the conception of “other” could shift or be eradicated altogether. Trust could be maintained, and the U-Bahn stations could remain open as an indicator of that trust.
For the latter future to materialize, a lot of changes would need to happen worldwide. It would be a long and arduous process – and to be quite honest, it might never happen. The world is tremendously divided along ethnic, racial, and ideological lines. But the world is also more connected today than ever before. Through tapping into that connectivity in an increasingly globalized world, the first steps towards these changes could be realized.