Recent refugee arrivals in Austria: Challenges to social and labour market integration

26 November 2019

A major study by wiiw of recent arrivals from the Middle East highlights the importance of interaction with locals, language skills and mental health support.


By Michael Landesmann and Sandra M. Leitner

  • A new wiiw econometric study using a detailed survey of recent refugees from the Middle East emphasises the link between social integration and their employment prospects.
  • Social networks (especially with Austrians) are essential to assist refugees in finding jobs.
  • The ability to speak and understand German to an advanced level is important for both social and labour market integration.
  • The perception of discrimination increases with closer social encounters with Austrians and in the work place.

Austria saw a large influx of refugees in the years 2014 to 2016, during the escalation of the war in Syria. Along with Germany and Sweden, Austria absorbed the largest number of asylum seekers per capita in the EU.[1] In Germany about 1.2 million asylum seekers were registered in 2015 and 2016 compared to 131,000 in Austria and 199,000 in Sweden. On a per capita basis, Sweden encountered 17 asylum applications per 1,000 inhabitants in 2015 (in 2016 this came down to 3), Austria 10 (reduced in 2016 to 5) and Germany 6 (increased in 2016 to 9).

Subsequent to the large inflow in 2015 and as a reaction to the lack of an effective European-level mechanism to spread the burden of hosting refugee populations, all three countries implemented procedures to reduce the (unauthorised) inflow of asylum seekers. Governments granted or shortened the period for a temporary residence permit instead of a permanent one, (temporarily) suspended family reunification for those under subsidiary protection, extended the list of safe origin countries, and made permanent residence permits conditional on individual integration efforts. At the same time, governments in all three countries allocated considerable resources to enhance integration.

Understanding the experience of integration

Given the importance of recent refugee inflows into Austria, it is obviously of great importance to study the integration experiences (not only economic, but also social, cultural and political) of refugees who came to Austria. As Figure 1 shows, previous post-WWII refugee flows into Austria were predominantly from other European countries (Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, Poland in 1981, and Yugoslavia during the Balkan crisis of the 1990s). The most recent refugee influx is the first significant refugee inflow from outside Europe (especially from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Iran). This is particularly important to understand, as we expect South-North migration and refugee flows into Europe to become more common in the future.

Figure 1: Refugee waves to Austria since 1956

Source: BMEIA

Our study analyses the interrelationships between two important aspects of integration of refugees in Austria, namely labour market integration and social integration. While labour market integration is captured in terms of being employed as compared to being unemployed or inactive, social integration distinguishes between social networks and their ethnic composition and social capital [2]. It identifies the key determinants of each of these domains of integration and investigates the direction as well as the size of interdependencies among them. The analysis uses a unique dataset built on the basis of a survey of about 1,600 refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran who had come to Austria mainly since 2010 (ICMPD, 2018).

Main conclusions and the way forward

The study identifies the key determinants of labour market integration and social integration. These have important implications for integration policy in Austria. The main conclusions of the study are as follows:

  • There is a causal link running from social integration to labour market integration (i.e. employment). Social contact with Austrians as well as with people of the same ethnic group are important in this context, but the former is more powerful than the latter.
  • Social contact with Austrians and with people of the same ethnic group are complementary rather than rivals. This is important in that stronger linkages with the ethnic community do not hinder, but are rather complementary to, contacts with other groups in the host society, predominantly Austrians. This result might reflect the characteristics of the sample, i.e. looking at the experiences of recent waves of refugees which have not yet been followed over a longer time period.
  • Factors that affect social integration also impact labour market integration (i.e. employment prospects). Thus the determinants of social network linkages are not only directly important for social integration but also indirectly for labour market integration.
  • Command of the host country’s language (in this case German) is of great importance for both social and labour market integration.
  • Linked to the above, an interesting additional finding of our study is that speaking and understanding the host language are more important than being able to write or to read it. We should keep in mind that we are analysing here mostly early experiences of refugees (the bulk of them arrived in 2014-16 and the survey was conducted in 2018) and hence it reflects the importance of speaking and understanding of the local language in these early phases. This does have implications for the way language courses are designed for these early phases of integration.
  • Both higher education (in terms of at least a high-school leaving examination, i.e. Matura) and length of stay are key determinants of successful labour market integration.
  • Sound mental health is key to the social integration of refugees. A serious mental health problem (quite widespread particularly amongst the young; see the complementary analysis by Leitner et al., 2019) is a handicap for social integration and thus indirectly for labour market integration. This again has policy implications as attention to providing health services adapted to the requirements of refugees (see also Kohlenberger et al., 2019) also improves overall integration perspectives and counters longer-term marginalisation.
  • The (self-recorded and thus perception of) discrimination is higher for those refugees who are employed and who are more socially integrated with Austrians. This indicates that stronger labour market integration (encounters in the workplace) and also more social interaction with Austrians leads to a stronger perception of instances of discrimination. Therefore from a policy perspective, targeting discrimination in the workplace and in the social settings of recently arrived migrants should be a priority. This would reduce the negative aspect of more intense encounters at work and in social life with the host community. It would thereby counter a defensive withdrawal into co-ethnic networks which in turn would have a negative impact on labour market integration.



[1] Hungary also received a large number of asylum seekers, but very few of those remained in Hungary.

[2] Social networks refer to the interactions that take place with persons either from the host society, or from the place a migrant/refugee comes from (co-ethnics) or with migrants/refugees that come from other countries. In quantitative research, surveys attempt to find out how wide a network is and how intensive the interaction with a particular network is. Social capital refers to the direct mobilisation of resources that a social context can potentially provide to a person. It refers to whether a person has actual access – through the social capital he/she has built up – to support in particular circumstances (if a person is ill, needs to borrow money, in finding accommodation, getting support to deal with the institutions of the host society, get access to educational/training facilities, and – of course – employment). Social capital is closely linked to social networks and both the potential to provide support and the nature of this support depend very much on the type of social network in which an individual situates him/herself and the particular position which he/she occupies in it.