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Vienna, Austria – Sitting on a sofa in their Vienna flat, they laughed as they planned their night out together.
Although the conversation sounded like it could have been any exchange among flatmates, this flat-share was slightly unusual.
Uche Daniel, 25, is a refugee from Nigeria. He had met his Austrian flatmates – Patricia Hartl and Simone Fidler – two weeks earlier through Flüchtlinge Willkommen (Refugees Welcome), an initiative inviting asylum seekers and refugees to stay in people’s spare rooms instead of in mass accommodation centres.
“I wonder why it hasn’t been done before,” said 24-year-old Simone. “It just makes sense. People are having to sleep in tents while there are so many rooms free.”
Like many European countries, Austria is currently experiencing a crisis in asylum housing.
In the first quarter of 2015, the country saw the third-largest increase in the number of asylum seekers in the European Union. It now registers up to 370 applications daily, nearly half of which are from Syrians and Afghans.
Reception centres are packed, and some hostels for asylum seekers have been accused of inadequate care.
Many people who work with asylum seekers in Austria say the issue is not just a financial and resource problem, but that the often badly run and isolated housing for asylum seekers reflects an affront to the idea of integration.
Founded in Germany nine months ago, Refugees Welcome was introduced in Austria this year, and says it seeks to improve living conditions for asylum seekers and refugees.
Today, more than 70 asylum seekers and refugees have been placed in flatshares across Austria and Germany, with more countries to follow.
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The ease with which Daniel has become friends with Patricia and Simone – he has already been invited to spend Christmas with them – contrasts with the tense political wrangling over asylum housing in Austria.
After completing the initial application steps at a federally run reception centre, asylum seekers are supposed to be moved to privately run housing in one of Austria’s nine provinces.
A lack of housing in the provinces, however, means that many are staying for months instead of days at the over-flowing centres.
The largest of these is in flat-shares, a town just south of Vienna. Of the 3,200 asylum seekers there, 900 do not have a bed, and some have been sleeping in corridors or even outside.
Often, in these areas, local people will protest against the asylum seekers, and it doesn't help to encourage integration. They often don't have access to a German course, or it is a long distance to travel to one.
Despite this, attempts to enforce asylum housing quotas at a district level in Austria failed after the federal government faced fierce opposition from powerful provincial authorities during a crisis meeting in June.
Protests against asylum centres
In addition to the dearth of spaces, the quality of accommodation varies widely, as each province sets different guidelines for the standard of care.
Austrian investigative journalism group Dossier first reported on state-organised asylum housing in 2013.
They returned recently to the worst cases in three provinces and found that two still had problems, including mould, infestations and over-crowding.
Remote locations and the attitude of the accommodation owner were also concerns.
“It’s like a lottery. It can all be fine, or it can be five kilometres from the nearest supermarkets, or the landlord can be a racist,” said Dossier journalist Florian Skrabal, explaining that in many cases the authorities weren’t properly checking the properties.
The “not in my backyard” attitude of some municipality authorities, however, makes finding replacement accommodation difficult.
Two-thirds of Austrian municipalities do not yet house any asylum seekers.
Politicians with the right-wing Freedom Party (FPÖ) and The Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ) recently protested against a new asylum centre in the municipality of Ossiach, in the province of Carinthia, claiming it was a “total mistake” and would damage tourism in the area.
“For a 740-inhabitant municipality whose main source of income is tourism to be burdened with this, one can only shake your head at it,” said Christian Ragger, the provincial chairman of the FPÖ.
Lack of integration support
Part of the problem, activists say, is that the Austrian government does not do enough to help integrate those granted asylum in Austria.
After receiving his visa four months ago, Daniel then had three months to find a place of his own. Although the government’s policy is to help with integration once asylum has been granted, he said he received no such support.
The UNHCR in Austria has said that insufficient help at this stage is causing a backlog, because increasing numbers of refugees are having their asylum applications approved, but then are unable to find their own housing.
“If you would grant them some integration support, then new places [in asylum housing] would get free and others could get in,” said UNHCR spokeswoman Ruth Schöffl.
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David Zistl, a Refugees Welcome organiser in Austria, believes placing much of the state-organised mass accommodation away from urban centres serves to isolate asylum seekers.
“Often, in these areas, local people will protest against the asylum seekers, and it doesn’t help to encourage integration. They often don’t have access to a German course, or it is a long distance to travel to one,” Zistl said.
He added that asylum seekers who opt for self-organised housing – such as the flat-shares arranged by Refugees Welcome – are allocated less money from the government than those who live in mass accommodation, even though self-organised housing arrangements allow for better integration.
Meanwhile, Daniel said that although he sometimes experiences hostility from people, the warm reception he received from Simone and Patricia showed him a different side of Austria.
“With time,” he said, “I think they will teach me a lot”.