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30. July 2010

Living Together But How?

Guest commentary by Edit Schlaffer (Die Presee, 30.7.2010)

Debates on migration policies are not new in Austria, but they have recently taken a more serious turn. Practical constraints rather than the stakeholders’ humanitarian considerations form the basis for this change. A rapidly aging population, collapsing health and social systems and fading confidence in the durability of our pension system have triggered a more rational approach to this controversial issue. Recently, Foreign Secretary Spindelegger made immigration a national imperative and the Secretary General of the Conservative employees’ representation (ÖAAB), Lukas Mandl, revealed his ambition to make the ‘red-white-red’ card one of the most sought after documents in the world in an emotional speech.

Austria needs to stay economically competitive. Earlier laissez-faire strategies that let guest-workers in without clear immigration and, in particular, integration policies, followed by closing the borders in a panic-stricken reaction, are economically counterproductive in our globalised, competitive society.
Before starting to head-hunt for talents across the Balkans and Turkey, politicians and migration experts should consider the current situation in Austria. How are Austrians with an immigrant background coping? A particular focus on the younger generation, as the bridge between the older migrant generations and the majority society, is needed.

Parallel societies, debates on the construction of minarets and the banning of the burqa, and Islamophobia are making headlines in Europe today. It goes without saying that positive attitudes among both the immigrants and the majority society create the basis for a consolidated healthy society on the local level, and within the wider political context. A new survey across all school types tried to investigate just how well these two groups live together in Austria by interviewing 120 schoolchildren between the ages of 14 and 18. 76 of the surveyed adolescents had immigrant origins, the majority of whom were Muslim and born in Austria.

Schools are microcosms; societal attitudes are reflected, rules are learnt and modified, and ideally, stereotypes are detected and actively challenged in this environment. The outcome of these processes should be a society that is open to all.
The key finding of our qualitative study was that children of diverse backgrounds don’t form a ‘class community’; they don’t live together, but next to each other. There is little contact between children of immigrant origin and ‘Austrians’.

An invisible barrier separates young immigrants from young non-immigrants. They each formally use the school locus, but the potential of this common ground is not fully exhausted. Beyond attending the same school, little contact exists between these children. Shared leisure activities, sleepovers and friendships are based on this segregation. A gender aspect is added to the general divide. Adolescence is generally marked by insecurities regarding one’s own body and contact with the opposite sex, but Muslim boys and girls in particular have additional gender related taboos to consider. The rules of immigrant parents, in particular regarding restricted liberties generally enjoyed by ‘Austrian’ adolescents, also affect daily school life. As a consequence, gender has become a key cultural clash issue in migration debates. On the one hand, we see overly protective and culturally disorientated parents, and on the other hand, we have proponents of the Enlightenment, who lack policy ideas beyond rhetoric. This shortage of ideas and tools to overcome the divide in our culture is striking.
Austria is proud of its intercultural dialogue capacities, but these competencies need to be applied to those who are our future—our children—and not only be discussed within ecclesiastic and political circles. Diversity is the key.
Schools have started to focus on language programmes. Progress is slow, but these initiatives need time and some successes are already visible. A next step for schools is to pro-actively organise living together, and develop innovative programmes in this respect.

For most immigrants, a head start into linguistic socialisation is not self-evident. Schoolchildren of immigrant/Muslim background are aware of the fact that life in Austria is obstructed without proficiency in German. About a third of the children from the majority society think that their immigrant peers’ German is not sufficient. This observation is not supported by the interviews carried out as part of the survey. In fact, three quarters of the schoolchildren of immigrant background interviewed for the survey spoke near-perfect to perfect German. This divergence between self-awareness as well as the perception of others and reality should also be seen in light of societal attitudes towards immigrants and those of immigrant origin.

Quoting Sir Karl Popper: an open society has many enemies.

 
 

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