Content uploaded by Ruth Simsa
All content in this area was uploaded by Ruth Simsa on Sep 13, 2017
Content may be subject to copyright.
Leaving Emergency Management in the Refugee Crisis to Civil Society? − The Case of
Ruth Simsa, WU Wien in: Journal of Applied Security Research; Vol.11/Nr.4/2017
This paper assesses the role of Austrian civil society in the refugee crisis. Based on empirical
research conducted in the autumn and winter of 2015, the activities of civil society actors,
the framework conditions and their consequences will be shown. The influx of hundreds of
thousands asylum seekers in 2015 was and is a crucial challenge for social integration,
security and stability in many European countries. In the period concerned, Austria was one
of the countries confronted to an extremely high degree with both asylum seekers and
transit-refugees. Civil society actors such as nonprofit organizations and volunteers played
an important role in maintaining humanitarian standards and effective crisis management,
yet at a high cost and strain especially for civil society actors, nonprofit organizations (NPOs)
Keywords: Civil Society, Non-profit Organization, refugee crisis, emergency
„Without civil society, the whole asylum system would have broken down by now.” (I 17,
The subjects of immigration, European Union security and integration are omnipresent
today. Coping with the massive refugee influx on a global scale represents one of the central
future challenges for societies, their security, stability and welfare. The refugee crisis in
Europe, which became severe in 2015, has shown that civil society has an important role to
play. Civil society refers to the domain that exists between the state, the economy and the
private sphere in which people attempt to represent and define their own interests
(Edwards 2009; Putnam 1993), often related to the ideas of participation, democracy and
social equality (Pollack 2004; Zimmer and Priller 2007). Very frequently, civil society is
mentioned in the context of Nonprofit-Organizations (Salamon and Anheier 1992; Salamon
and Sokolowski 2016), but non-formalized engagement which takes place outside of
formalized organizations and structures also represent an important, however, often
overlooked part of civil society. In this article, civil society is defined as the sum of actors and
actions characterized by a minimum degree of autonomy from the market and the state and
which are furthermore directed at shaping political processes and/or living conditions and
take place within the scope of collective action. In other words: „Civil society is an open
arena of participation, located beyond the fuzzy boundaries of state and market, in which
different types of individuals, groups, and organisations cooperate or compete for visibility
and relevance, in the pursuit of collective (though not necessarily shared) political and social
goals and animated by a variety of values and interests.” (Fioramonti and Thümler 2013). It
contains both nonprofit-organizations, i.e. private, non-profit-distributing organizations
(Meyer and Simsa 2013; Salamon and Anheier 1992) and grass-roots activities. Voluntary
work is defined as unpaid work benefitting people that do not belong to the household or
the family of the volunteer. Formal volunteering takes place within nonprofit-organizations,
informal volunteering is self-organized and outside of organizations (More-Hollerweger and
In view of the hesitant approach of the political leaders, the Austria civil society stepped in
and made important contributions to coping with the refugee influx, not only in terms of the
provision of initial care but also in the organization and coordination of further help
concerning accommodation, legal aid, health care and language courses. Actors in the civic
sector also played an important role in the provision of continuing and complementary
measures of social and cultural integration. Furthermore, civil society actors decisively
shaped the public opinion.
Currently, the country faced two adverse developments. On one hand, right-wing populist
attitudes and resentments towards refugees increased. It was claimed that the influx of
volunteers would increase crime and general insecurity and also burden public budgets.
Hostility towards foreigners had been increasing already before (Wallace 2003) but was
intensified with the refugee crisis. On the other hand, high levels of solidarity exist among a
host of civic social actors despite the right-wing rhetoric. There was an increase of civil
society engagement, including the activities of traditional social non-profit organizations and
the emergence of new grass roots initiatives and self-organized activities of volunteers.
Many people started volunteering to help migrants for the first time in their lives or
increased their level of civic participation. Civil Society has made important contribution to
initial care including first aid, clothing and food at the borders. Also, activities to foster
Integration for those refugees remaining in the country, took place. The volunteer work in
autumn 2015 did not only take place within the scope of traditional structures of civil society
and existing NPOs but also in the form of newly founded initiatives and grassroots
organizations and informal engagement. Together with established rescue and aid
organizations, grassroots initiatives and volunteers provided thousands of refugees with
emergency supply, initial care and provisional accommodation. The refugees welcome
culture resulted in significant media coverage, not only nationally but internationally. Stories
about volunteers helping at train stations in Austria and Germany further mobilized civil
society and sent a clear political signal.
Without this civic engagement, in 2015 Austria – like many other countries – would have
faced a security and humanitarian catastrophe. Like also in Germany, this development has
shown, that civil society is more than just a nice ad-on to state activities (Becker, Speth and
Strachwitz 2016), civically engaged citizens have a direct impact in matters of dealing with
emergencies, crisis, integration and meeting the social needs of newly arrived asylum
A Brief Overview of the Austrian Asylum Policy
„And the 5th September, this was the day, when only on one weekend, 12,000 people
came to the Westbahnhof or to the Hauptbahnhof (train stations). This was a huge lot,
you could not just bring them away, [...] it was just enormous.“ (I 29)
In the last two quarters of 2015, the number of refugees arriving in Europe and of asylum
applicants increased dramatically. Overall there were an estimated 1,015,078 persons
arriving by the Mediterranean Sea in the year 2015
, 3770 persons lost their lives on this
The vast majority of people arriving by the Mediterranean Sea has made its way
through the Western Balkans route. Citizens of 147 countries sought asylum in the European
Union, among which Syrians, Afghanis and Iraqis account for the most applications. As
regards to the destinations of the asylum applicants five Member States account for more
than 75% of all first time applicants in the European Union. In the last quarter of 2015 most
applicants were registered in Germany (with over 162,500 persons, or 38% of total
applicants in the EU). Sweden recorded 87,900 asylum applicants or 21%, followed by
Austria (30,800, or 7%) and Italy and France (both with over 23,500, or 6% each).
to the population, besides Hungary and Sweden, Austria was the country with the third
highest number of asylum seekers.
In 2015, a total of 88,912 asylum applications were
registered in Austria in the year 2015.
Due to its geographical location and proximity to
Germany, Austria was on a major refugee transit route for those seeking to claim asylum in
Germany, Sweden or other countries. According to the Austrian Ministry of the Interior an
estimated number of 600,000 persons used Austria as transit country between September
5th and mid-December 2015.
Confronted with this enormous influx of refugees, especially in
autumn of 2015, public authorities all over Europe seemed to be overwhelmed as the
European Union struggled to find common solutions within it asylum regulations.
The Austrian asylum policy is characterized by drastic changes of strategies. Three steps can
be identified. In the first phase, before the summer and autumn of 2015, the dominant
strategy of the Austrian government was rather passive. Requirements of the Dublin treaty
were more or less fulfilled; the topic of asylum and refugees did not receive as much public
attention as in the following phases. Nevertheless, the situation of refugees was critical. The
UNHCR (9. März 2016): Refugees – Migrants Emergency Response – Mediterranean. Abgerufen von
Missing Migrants Projekt (24. Februar 2016). Abgerufen von http://missingmigrants.iom.int/latest-global-
Eurostat (9. März 2016): Asylum quarterly report. Abgerufen von http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-
Nachrichten.at (16. Mai 2016): 60 Millionen Menschen auf der Flucht. Abgerufen von
Bundesministerium für Inneres (15. März 2016): Vorläufige Asylstatistik 2015. Abgerufen von
Bundesministerium für Inneres (15. März 2016): Vorläufige Asylstatistik 2015. Abgerufen von
main asylum reception center, Traiskirchen, was overcrowded. Asylum procedures took a
long time and the humanitarian conditions began to decline fast. Moreover, three events in
the summer 2015 emotionalized the refugee topic and facilitated a change of strategy and
political culture. In August, Amnesty International reviewed the Austrian asylum reception
centre Traiskirchen after receiving grievances about unacceptable conditions for refugees.
Because of the lack of space, 1,500 persons slept outdoors with less than adequate sanitary
facilities and unsatisfactory medical care. The private service provider administering the
centre was heavily criticized. Secondly, on August 27th 2015, a truck with 71 dead refugees
was found in Austria near the Hungarian border. Public authorities announced efforts to
reinforce the fight against human traffickers and the Austrian population was alarmed. On
September 3rd, the picture of a drowned child at the Turkish coast was published worldwide.
Those events mobilized civil engagement and more initiatives were founded. And finally, two
further developments, in September 2015 led to changes. The closure of the Hungarian
border with Serbia and media reports with pictures of desperate situations of refugees and
the violation of human rights in Hungary. With such a close proximity to Austria, the border
issues got high coverage in social networks and private initiatives were started to bring
refugees with cars from Budapest to Austria. In the night of September 4th, thousands of
refugees made their way from Budapest to the Austrian border, by train, by bus or by foot.
Their arrival at the border and at the two largest train stations in Vienna was met by a wave
of solidarity and „Willkommenskultur” (refugees welcome culture) among the Austrian
population. Also, Germany´s chancellor Angela Merkel abrogated the Dublin Regulation for
Syrian refugees, so asylum applications were dealt with in Germany even if refugee seekers
had been coming from other European countries. Austria, oriented towards the German
political position, opened the border for thousands of refugees as well. „If people are in
need, we have to open border-posts” was the summary of the official strategy by the
Thus, by August-September, the second phase of Austrian asylum policy started,
characterized by open-border politics, accompanied by a high degree of civil society
activism. A refugee-coordinator was nominated by the Viennese government with the goal
to coordinate activities of diverse actors, and to establish accommodations for refugees.
Also, the armed forces were engaged in transporting, supplying meals, organizing
accommodation and logistics. The Austrian federal railway, the police and the Austrian
armed forces worked closely with the big nonprofit-rescue organizations to establish a
functioning and efficient transport chain and emergency shelters and provisional
accommodation for the refugees. The nonprofit-rescue organizations were active at the
borders supplying first medical aid, food and shelter to transit refugees, the federal railway
organized the transportation of refugees from the borders through Austria. At the big train
stations, different social service organizations and newly founded initiatives (Train of Hope)
provided the refugees with necessities like sleeping facilities, food, clothing and information.
The armed forces made busses available for the transportation of refugees between the
SPÖ (5. September 2015): Faymann: Grenzbalken auf für die Menschlichkeit. Abgerufen von
border and their accommodations. Nevertheless, at the beginning of autumn, many
processes were chaotic, many necessary services – especially regarding the provision of
accommodation, food and translation were not offered sufficiently by the state or
communities and civil society stepped in.
With numbers of refugees increasing, criticism of this policy increased. The Viennese
elections in October 2015 were focused on the topic of immigration and security, with the
leading Social Democrat Party opting for an open-boarder strategy thus promoting a
welcoming culture. They were heavily challenged by the right-wing populist party (the
„Austrian Freedom Party” – FPÖ), that opted for a restrictive policy and fostered
resentments towards immigrants in general, insecurity, Muslims and the –so-called – abuse
of social services. This party gained significantly, yet less than had been predicted.
Nevertheless, the public discourse had changed and thus did the official asylum strategy.
In this third phase of the Austrian strategy, policy was oriented towards the Visegrad
countries (Hungary, Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia) that had opted to impose restrictions
and had established barrier fences on some of their borders. Also, Sweden and Denmark had
established further restrictions for asylum seekers. Internationally criticised, in December
Austria built a fence in the south of the country and in February 2016, it announced a limited
number of acceptances of refugees as well as a restriction of the number of transit-refugees.
At the same time, some „normalization” of dealing with services for refugees had taken
place, with clearer roles between different organizations, established emergency
accommodations and some routines in dealing with daily challenges.
In the second phase, we
conducted empirical research on activities of civil society actors. In
the following chapters, the methodology and findings will be explained.
Between October 2015 and February 2016 an explorative pilot study was conducted on
behalf of the biggest social organizations in Austria (Simsa et al. 2016). The aim was a first
attempt to capture the civil engagement during the refugee crisis in Austria and to identify
learning opportunities for the NPOs concerning how to cope with future challenges of
migration and integration. 57 problem-centered interviews were conducted. Special
attention was paid to ensuring that the composition of the sample reflected the diversity of
civil society actors in the field (rescue and aid organizations, newly founded initiatives and
organizations, volunteers, state and municipal institutions as well as Syrian refugees).
Moreover, there is documentation of 8 participant observations made in the context of
volunteer work in refugee accommodations.
The data was collected in autumn 2015 with a regional focus on the capital Vienna. Some
interviews were also taken at Nickelsdorf, the border to Hungary. Moreover, a quantitative
sample was collected in the whole of Austria. A questionnaire was sent to 111 organizations
and initiatives that were involved in the refugee aid in Austria. However, at the time of data
compilation many of the NPOs, especially little organizations, had not yet been able to gain a
precise overview of their own activities, resulting in a comparatively low sample size (n=38)
and making statements on quantitative aspects of the refugee aid performed by civil society
actors difficult. While the sample size is low, the resulting sample captures a broad range of
different civil society actors, namely traditional emergency-response organizations (3
interviews), other traditional social nonprofit organizations (8 interviews), newly founded
grass-roots organizations (7 interviews), older grass-roots projects regarding refugee-
integration (4 interviews). Further, to capture a view on the opinions of refugees, 15
interviews with Syrian refugees were taken and 5 interviews with involved public or public-
related institutions. The sample collection followed principles of grounded theory (Glaser
and Strauss 2008), thus interview partners of different groups, like e.g. managers of
nonprofit organizations, informal and formal volunteers, coordinators of grass-roots
initiatives, and different socio-demographic features regarding age, sex and formal
qualification were included. For practical reasons, only asylum seekers from Syria were
included in the sample. Transit-refugees and refugees from other countries could not be
interviewed. Transit-refugees did not stay long enough in the country and had no time for
interviews. Interviews with refugees from other countries would have been very interesting,
yet they were beyond the scope of the project because of the necessity to engage native
speakers in the project team. Interviews with German-speaking partners were transcribed
and coded, interviews with Syrian refugees were summarized. Further, 8 documentations of
participating observations have been made, for which researchers worked at least half a day
in emergency accommodations, train stations or civil society Integration initiatives.
It must be stressed that the survey phase encompasses a limited period of time. This is
important, as the development is very dynamic and the situation in 2016 has changed in
many aspects. One aspect of these dynamics was the above mentioned change in the
political climate. While at the beginning of the project, the country was proud of its refugee
welcome culture, towards the end of the year 2015 this dominant discourse changed
significally towards a climate of fear and resentments. Another aspect of change regards the
professionalization of services regarding refugees, both within civil society and within public
services. At the end of 2015 more services were organized on the basis of service contracts
between the national or local governments and nonprofit-organizations and former
volunteers were contracted by nonprofit-organizations. Our survey phase matches the
second phase of the Austrian asylum strategy, thus a time, when the positive climate was
still observable but was beginning to change.
Quotations in the text have been translated by the author, the abbreviation (Ixx) refers to
interviews with partners from Austria, (SIxx) refers to interviews with Syrian refugees and
(Oxx) refers to other coded material like open announcements or letters from civil society
initiatives. In this paper, we offer a first description of results.
Contributions of civil society – initial treatment and Integration
Areas of activity – initial treatment and integration
Two areas of activity can be distinguished, namely initial treatment of refugees and
Initial treatment encompassed activities that offered immediate existential care, like food,
medical aid, transport, hygiene products and clothing. Civil society activists supplied these
items at the borders, transport hubs and in emergency accommodations. Additionally,
volunteers assisted children, helped to find missing persons, supplied and organized charging
stations for mobile phones and organized interpreters.
Regarding integration, we have to distinguish functional and affectional integration.
Functional integration includes participation in existing social structures including the labour
market, education or the legal system. Affectional integration is based on a sense of
affiliation and belonging, on collective identity and shared values (Vortkamp 2008). Civil
society was and is active in both aspects of integration. Volunteers and civil society
organizations offered help regarding access to housing, education, and work. They
supported refugees as they navigated official channels, sought medical supply or legal
advice. Regarding affectional integration, the work of civil society is the most important. In
many grass-roots activities, a dense net of diverse activities is being organized, ranging from
leisure activities like sports, cooking, making music or excursions to language-exchange and
language courses, computer training, creativity workshops or general support in daily
activities like finding a doctor, getting oriented in the system of public transport and so on.
Also, workshops on asylum-law, gender, Austrian laws in general, swimming, sewing,
preparation for studies or other formal education, the Austrian culture and behavioural
norms were reported. A benefit of these civil society activities results from the fact, that
besides the offered services, they also include „relationship work”, namely the chance to
build relations and contacts between locals and immigrants. Sometimes they enable
immigrants/refugees to be included in social networks and groups. In the long run, it may
also be assumed that these aspects of integration also can, by increasing trust and social
cohesion, assist in promoting a more secure society.
In the survey phase activities of initial care were in the foreground. This was due to high
numbers of transit-refugees, on the other hand, these activities are more spectacular, they
are performed in a modus of crisis and get high public attention. Activities of integration are
more quiet, mostly they are organized on a very local basis and get little attention.
The situation of refugees – different phases, different needs and different competences of
The duration of asylum proceedings is long and unpredictable. Although designated
personnel has been increased, there is a backlog of cases. The lack of clarity regarding
criteria and individual chances leaves room for speculation and worry. Also, increasingly
stringent laws and their interpretations, as well as the nonfulfillment of existing laws are
The „life cycle” of an integration process includes three main steps, the initial needs at the
arrival, the situation during the asylum procedure and the time after obtaining asylum. In
the investigation presented here, only asylum-seekers were interviewed, thus the
impressions of transit-refugees could not be included.
During the first phase, the initial care at the arrival, there have been substantial changes
within the survey phase. While at the beginning of autumn, the system relied heavily on
„In the first week […] it must have been the 6th of September […] this was one of the
first colder nights. There were masses of people, refugees slept at the traffic circle at
night, also in the rain. This was really awful. Then our people came back and told us,
that they have nothing, there was a need of everything.“ (I 12)
With the inclusion of the armed forces and the police, as well as with the official assignment
of the big private emergency organizations, the situation got more under control.
Nevertheless, volunteers remained active. One big train station was supplied almost
exclusively by the newly founded initiative „train of hope”, at other stations social
organizations like the Caritas needed the support of volunteers. Civil society activities in this
regard were more flexible and prompt than those of other actors. Nevertheless, interview
partners report specific inefficiencies of the organization of this initial care by volunteers.
There was an imbalance of demand and supply of volunteers, it was difficult to coordinate
different activities and the management of „things” like food or clothing also presented a
challenge. The Syrian interview-partners generally were very positive about this phase.
„The treatment was very good. Especially the volunteers were very nice. They gave us
jackets and shoes.“ (SI 2)
„We arrived four months ago in Vienna and were super welcomed from the Red Cross.
They gave us clothes, food and blankets. Also, we were examined medically. Especially
with our kids, they were very nice.“ (SI 1)
The second phase, the time during the asylum procedure, is characterized by waiting.
Asylum-seekers have a right to accommodation, food and other basic supplies, but they are
not allowed to work and usually they have no possibility to attend official German courses.
Generally, regarding this phase, great differences were reported by Syrian interview-
partners, some had to stay a long time in emergency accommodation, others have to leave
their accommodation during day-time, others got individual flats. Others did not get any
accommodation, according to civil society interview partners, many asylum seekers were left
Emergency shelters are an essential topic in this phase. They were designed for transit-
refugees, thus for people staying one or two nights; however, they were used for hundreds
of people, who had to stay there for weeks, without any privacy or sufficient sanitary
facilities and with problematic conditions regarding security and safety. Violence, sexual
harassment and mobbing occurred regularly in the shelters. Syrian interview partners told
that some groups of refugees take control in these shelters, almost all have experienced
„Some refugees take all the clothes and most of all the blankets. Then they change them
for cigarettes.“ (SI 10)
„Security was not good in the camp, there happened thefts and fights.“ (SI 9)
Some of these sites were run over weeks almost only by volunteers, in self-coordinated
ways. Others were run by nonprofit-emergency organizations but as they had to cope with
high numbers of refugees and also often had to react very spontaneously, they needed
support of volunteers. The manager of a private nonprofit-emergency organization, which
usually only works with selected and trained volunteers, describes the necessity:
„For instance, in xx, we opened an emergency shelter within two days (…) for 900 people.
There we worked with facebook. We went there with 6 employees (…) with equipment
like beds etc. (…). An acquaintance helped us there and we made a call via facebook. And
at the first evening, 480 people were there – civil society.” (I10)
A very important contribution of civil society activists are privately organized German
courses and translation.
„So far we don´t have asylum, the process is still going, we have the white card (asylum-
seeker). Nevertheless, private persons are coming, who teach us the language. Also, they
bring people who play with our children, so that we can attend the course. This is a great
thing.“ (SI 1)
After petitions for asylum are granted, all Syrian interview partners described a situation of
feeling lost, they miss support and no longer have a right for accommodation. Although they
receive social security payments, they report severe difficulties in finding places to life.
Chances to find work are very low.
Kommentiert [GP1]: [...]?
„[…] (We) finally rented a flat. 10 people in one flat. […] It was rented to us by two Syrian
refugees, [...]. They subleased to us, to several refugees, and each of us had to pay up to
250 Euro.“ (SI 4)
For those entering the country, there is a right – and a duty – to attend language courses.
With regard to these, the interviewed refugees report a higher quality of privately offered
courses compared to those organized by public authorities. To their opinion, public courses
are not sufficient, and intervals between courses are too long. In this phase, the above
described integration-activities of civil society activists are very important and are described
by Syrian interview partners as very helpful and necessary. Nevertheless, according to
interviewees, their quantity is too low, compared with the needs and the numbers of
Reasons for Engaging in Civil Society Activities
Motives and reasons for civil society activities are always multifaceted and complex (More-
Hollerweger and Rameder 2013). While in the last years, the motives of helping others, the
fulfilling work, doing something useful, and getting to know people had been the most
important motives, and more altruistic motives like making experiences, learning and
increasing one’s employability have gained importance (BMASK 2009; BMASK 2015), now
the situation has changed. The most important motive of interviewees was distrust in the
government´s ability or willingness to supply sufficient services.
Austria has a long tradition of a corporatist welfare regime in which the state and nonprofit-
organizations cooperate. Many non-profit organizations routinely offer a variety of social
services to people in need on the basis of service contracts with – and thus financed by –
public bodies. Many non-profit organizations traditionally rely to large parts on volunteer
work. Thus, volunteering in nonprofit-organizations has a long and important trajectory and
plays an important role in maintaining social security in Austria (More-Hollerweger et al.
2014). Nevertheless, like in other countries (Hustinx et al. 2010), in the last years, it has been
increasingly challenging for organizations to attract and keep volunteers (Meyer and Simsa
2014). This changed dramatically in autumn 2015 when an increase in volunteering
happened both in non-profit organizations and outside of them, in self-organized forms.
Some volunteers expressed a personal need to help – after having seen much news about
the situation of refugees, they felt passionate and wanted to contribute. Many of these
people had a background of immigration, or they had heard stories of family members that
had to emigrate.
„There had been nights, when I had been crying, because I could not help. And as I heard,
that refugees would arrive in Vienna, I was happy. Since then, I am working here. It is a
relief.“ (I 11: 116)
Kommentiert [GP2]: Überschrift 2 oder 1
Further, there was a wave of volunteering, of which many people wanted to be part of.
Nevertheless, most strikingly, many interviewed volunteers said that they felt the necessity
to help because public bodies did not guarantee a safe and humane treatment of refugees –
they felt, that the situation had got out of control.
„At the moment, I have the feeling that Austria is only civil society. To put it slightly
exaggerated, the state has retreated. The ministry of Internal Affairs has surrendered,
they do nothing. The system of reception has broken down. We have 6000 people who
should be in primary care respectively should have been given accommodation in
emergency quarters, which also are run primarily by civil society. Every evening we have
150 to 200 homeless refugees in Traiskirchen, who are accommodated only by volunteers
and civil society.“ (I 17)
„The state fails completely.“ (I 2)
„You can´t trust the state any longer, you know, people are not cared about. They are not
accommodated.“ (I 33)
„It is hardly possible, to abandon the people – the refugees and the volunteers – more
than this government has done.“ (I 14)
Thus, volunteering in the period investigated can only partly be explained by traditions of
civil society engagement in Austria, which before had taken place before the background of
a stable welfare state, supplementing government´s activities or being performed within a
relatively stable relationship of public bodies and nonprofit-organizations (Pennerstorfer,
Schneider and Badelt 2013). What was new, was a situation of fundamental distrust in the
state fulfilling its duties, which was expressed by many interview partners as the most
important motive for volunteering.
In the following, the challenges for civil society and its organizations will be described. Apart
from a change in the political climate, they resulted mainly from the turbulent environment,
which was partly due to the nature of the emergency-situation and partly to communication-
problems, further organizational challenges due mainly to rapid growth and financial
uncertainty, and the strains faced by many volunteers.
Challenges for civil society and its organizations
The increasing polarization of society and the change of the political climate are a severe
challenge for civil society actors. Hostility towards foreigners increased substantially in 2015
(Wimmer et al. 2016). Thus, a change in attitudes took place from a welcome-culture to a
culture of distance to foreigners and xenophobic attitudes.
An analysis of communica
DW (27. Juni 2016): Could Germany, like Austria, close borders to refugees? Abgerufen von
tion in social networks between June 2015 and January 2016, showed the dramatic shifts.
The 50 articles, which received most shares in social networks were analysed regarding
„pro“, „contra“ and „neutral“ towards refugees. Whilst in August, 65% of shares related to
articles that supported refugees, in January 2016, 94 % of shares related to articles contra
These changes of the political climate were also felt by volunteers, which partly
also faced aggression.
„Well, on one hand the refugees were attacked by radicalized groups, on the other
hand also the helping people. […] And, so you also get a critique for a social activity.“
A challenge for civil organizations also had been frequently changing conditions and a lack of
information. Because of the nature of this emergency-situation, decisions, like for instance
the establishing of a new emergency-shelter, often were taken spontaneously. Often, it was
not clear, how many people would arrive at which time or which organization would be in
charge of an emergency shelter. Many interview partners criticise lacking or too distributed
decision-competencies of national and regional public bodies and wish more centralized
emergency competencies for the national government, which could enable faster and more
coordinated decisions. While communication between public bodies and civil society actors
improved significantly during the research period, at the beginning, relevant information
was often not distributed adequately. Apart from the nature of the crisis situation, this was
also due to lacking or frequently changing policies. This was not only the case in Austria:
„The policy and response by many of the governments is constantly changing, and this
makes planning difficult for everyone’ [...].” (Morgan 2015)
„You can´t imagine, how often we threw food away. They told us, 7 busses with 50 people
would come, so we cooked, and then the busses didn´t come because they had been
redirected.“ (I 10)
Many interview partners criticise an erosion of the constitutional state. Basic supply for
refugees is by law the task of the federal state. As this was not fulfilled sufficiently –
especially at the beginning of the crisis – several provinces and the civil society stepped in.
„The federal provinces think, it does not work, what the state is doing, therefore we have
to do it ourselves – otherwise we have the homeless people in the streets.“ (I 17)
Handelsblatt ( 27. Juni 2016): Austria, the Thorn in Merkel´s Side. Abgerufen von
Die Welt (18. Mai 2016): Und auf dem Hügel eine Vision von Merkel. Abgerufen von
Vice (18. Mai 2016): So hat sich die Stimmung der Österreicher zum Thema Flüchtlinge verändert. Abgerufen
„It has come to a situation of lawlessness and this frightens me […] as citizen, […] I have
less fear, if somebody passes the border unregistered, then a government that does not
fulfill crucial legal tasks.“ (I 17)
Civil society organizations had to cope not only with uncertainty, but also in many cases with
enormous and rapid growth. Three of the big Austrian nonprofit-organizations run
altogether 26 emergency shelters, 52 transit shelters and 78 other accommodations, with a
daily capacity of more than 6.000 refugees.
„We are somewhat exploding […]. Concerning numbers, regarding employee-work, we
have doubled within one year. This is an enormous challenge.“ (I 17)
A problem for the organizations working on a contractual basis for the state was the lack of
financial planning possibilities and very late payments. Often camps were established on
behalf of the government on a short term basis, without clear contracts. Especially
established organizations, which work not only with volunteers but also with paid staff,
faced that problems.
„But they never told us what we would get from the Republic. […] They said, make a
shelter here, and make a shelter there. And then we got the people, we cared for them,
but we didn´t have contracts – always only on demand.“ (I 10)
The recruitment of volunteers is being described as unproblematic, challenges were rather
the planning and coordination of voluntary work. Especially established organizations, which
are used to select and train their voluntary staff and usually work on the basis of clear formal
structures, faced unusual situations and unusual cooperations.
„The head of operations of (organization X) comes from disaster relief, he is usually
working in Sudan and it is probably easier for him to negotiate with African warlords,
then with an internet-initiative of the 21st century.“ (I 8: 4)
Emotional and psychological strains have taken a toll on the civic volunteers. Especially
people without professional training often faced personal limits. The temporal dimension of
individual volunteering was diverse, some people were engaged for only some hours and
sporadic, but some worked regularly and long hours. Voluntary work for 15 hours and more
per day was not uncommon, some people had even quit their jobs or their studies. Many
worked in a kind of emergency mode on and beyond their limits and especially at the
beginning of the crisis, there was not enough support. Also, being confronted with traumatic
fates of many refugees was stressful for volunteers.
„There were some extreme cases, they even slept in the camp, on camp beds, near
the refugees, then they woke up, after 2-3 hours and went on for 16 hours. This was
really crazy, in this extreme phase. […] This should not have been made a hero of, this
self-abandonment. This is dangerous.“ (I 40)
„There was a volunteer. […] He was, like me, almost 1.90 meters, about 90, 100 kilos –
a giant. He broke down, drowned in tears because he could not stand it. I understand
that – felt the same sometimes and thought: 'So, I turn around and go. If I watch for
three more minutes, I break down myself.'" (I 29)
„No, nobody can stand it any longer. The worst is the situation with the homeless
refugees. We have social workers who care about them. But it does not work. They
break down […] It is much too burdensome.“ (I 17: 68f)
The quotations show that at the beginning of the intense phase of the crisis, most involved
organizations – both public and civil society – did not take the topic of supporting volunteers
into account, with sometimes quite heavy consequences for the involved persons.
Psychological care and support for volunteers started several weeks after the beginning of
the crisis, also organized by civil society and volunteers. Volunteers with specific training e.g.
in emergency work, first aid or psychosocial work managed better to cope with the
challenges, but volunteers without this background often faced grave problems. They had
difficulties with setting limits to their involvement and handling the diverse psychological
and physical challenges.
All these problems were reported with regard to assistance in the initial period of the
immigration process. People active in integration activities reported now and then financial
shortages and the need for support for legal advice, free or inexpensive housing or more
information; nevertheless they did not face much stress but rather talk about the emotional
benefits of their work.
Generally, civil society organizations and volunteers contributed a lot to handling the crisis,
to maintaining a comparatively good support of refugees and thus also to keep up a general
feeling of security in the sense of a climate of manageability of the situation. Nevertheless,
this was done at sometimes high costs. Organizations faced challenges regarding the late
and insecure funding of activities, information deficits, the fast organizational growth, and
the co-ordination of high numbers of volunteers. The volunteers mainly faced personal
strains. Both volunteers and representatives of civil society organizations also reported
fulfilling and positive experiences and advantages, mainly the possibility to contribute and
help people in need.
International research shows that in the light of a tendency to reduce the services of welfare
states while facing manifold situations of crisis, actors of civil society gain importance to
keep up not only welfare standards but also to maintain trust and cohesion (Valentinov,
Hielscher and Pies 2015; Waele and Hustinx 2014). Further, with a focus on the refugee
crisis, they show that many European governments had not been able or willing to establish
adequate measures (Carrera et al. 2015; Selanec 2015). The same was true in Austria, as the
following statement points out.
„It [it what] needs a plan. Furthermore, abusing civil society is none.“ (O 7)
In the respective time period, civil society volunteers contributed to an unprecedented degree to
covering the needs of initial care and integration. This had positive and critical effects.
On one hand, it is to be judged critically that public tasks were left to voluntary engagement. Thus, –
like in other situations (Lindenberg 1999) – civil society was functionalized as a „gap filler” (Schlager
and Staritz 2015). This lack of official, governmentally organized activities is not only legally
problematic. Also, by relying too much on civil society activities, quantitative and qualitative
standards and requirements, like for instance regarding standards of first aid, of social work and of
the organization of complex processes, are left to the willingness and the abilities of private actors,
who often are not trained for the specific tasks and who could hardly be controlled in the
investigated time period. One consequence of this functionalization of civil society is the burden for
volunteers and civil society organizations, namely the physical and psychological stress experienced
by volunteers and the financial stress of nonprofit organizations. Further, the late and insufficient
financing of those tasks were carried out by non-profit organizations, on behalf of the state is
problematic. There are good arguments for contracting non-profit organizations for specific services.
They are specialists for dealing with difficult social situations and with organizing help. They are often
very experienced and have gone through profound processes of professionalization (Meyer and
Simsa 2013). Also, they are usually flexible and well-organized. Especially under pressure, they tend
to cooperation in the sector, thus, in situations of crisis they accept help from other non-profit
organizations (Simsa 2015). Further, contacts to grass roots initiatives as well as to clients are easy
accessible. They usually have good networks of volunteers and are experienced in managing them.
Nevertheless, they needed adequate framework conditions, especially professional contracts,
sufficient information and sufficient financing.
On the other hand, the situation had positive effects for (civil) society. Established non-profit
organizations not only experienced substantial growth but also gained legitimacy, by high public
attention and positive response in media and social media – at least in the phase of the welcome-
culture. There also had been stimuli for the foundation of new initiatives and for voluntary
engagement. Besides burdens, many actors reported very fulfilling and satisfying experiences, thus
proving again, what many other studies have shown: That volunteering not only contributes to
helping others but also is rewarding for volunteers (Weng and Lee 2015). Also, effects of community
building took place both within the local population and between locals and immigrants by building
contacts, co-operation and even friendships. By establishing personal contacts, the „flow of
refugees” was personalized, barriers could be removed and the feeling of powerlessness, which
easily can change to aggression, was reduced and changed to self-efficacy felt by volunteers. Thus,
civic engagement has a double effect – not only for refugees but also for the local population
(Becker, Speth and Strachwitz 2016). Further, volunteering is a possible way to enhance the
involvement of both first and second generation immigrants (Khvorostianov and Remennick 2016;
Wang and Handy 2014).
Given these pros and cons of civil society involvement, our results indicate that a new
arrangement between different actors – both civil society and the state – would be needed
to increase the problem solving capacity in crisis situations, the integration of immigrants
and the general level of security.
First, the partition of tasks between non-profit organizations and grass roots initiatives could
be balanced in a slightly different way by non-profit organizations taking care of large parts
of initial care and grass roots initiatives focussing more on integration work – with support of
non-profit organizations. Civil society activities outside of established organizations are
specifically effective and sustainable regarding tasks of integration. Regarding initial care,
their activities often had not been as effective as those of large emergency organizations –
there were many incidents of over-supply of food or clothes reported, also many incidents of
volunteers getting in each other´s ways, sometimes even hindering trains from leaving the
station with their activities, and also many incidents of overburden of volunteers. Facing
larger numbers of people immigrating, large, structured organizations with trained
personnel seem to be more effective; tasks of initial care rather need organized and
structured services. Tasks of integration, on the other hand, need a tight net of direct
contacts between locals and immigrants; they need long breathing and very local settings. As
interview partners, who were representing non-profit organizations stated, these tasks of
integration can´t be provided only by traditional non-profit-organizations but could
effectively be done or at least must be supplemented to a large extent by neighbourhood
communities and grassroots initiatives offering a broad variety of activities (Elbert and
Okamoto 2013). Non-profit-organizations could enhance the impact and the sustainability of
these initiatives by supporting them with advice, information, resources and locations. This
has been successfully done in the respective period but – according to interview partners
from grass-roots initiatives – should be enhanced in the future.
Second, to maintain the general stability of society and thus also security, the state would
have to fulfil legally bound tasks of supplying immigrants. This could be done in co-operation
with non-profit organizations. In Austria, like in many other countries, they acted as
mediators between refugees and the state (Szczepanikova 2014)on the basis of strong
engagement and close and direct contact with their clients on one hand and of basic funding
and clear contracts with the state on the other hand. This was not given in the investigated
period. As many volunteers stated, the situation seemed to be chaotic, unpredictable and
unmanageable and this not only led to civic engagement but also to aggression, fear and a
feeling of reduced stability and security. To avoid this irritation in future situations of crisis,
the state has to establish adequate measures. Firstly, these include the securing of initial
care. This could be done either by public bodies or in cooperation with non-profit
organizations. Secondly, to comply with the rule of law, processes of contracting out tasks to
non-profit organizations would need clear contracts and stable and secure framework
conditions, especially regarding funding. Thirdly, also the provision of adequate framework
conditions for grass roots initiatives would increase the impact of civil society. Integration
will be a long term challenge and more resources for voluntary initiatives will be necessary
(Ataç 2015; Frühwirth and Lachmayer 2015; Schenk 2015). During the migration crisis, civil
society organizations and volunteers have shown enormous creativity, problem-solving
expertise and empathy – nevertheless, to fulfil its potential in a sustainable manner,
adequate framework conditions are necessary.
Ataç, Ilker. 2015. "Freiwilligenarbeit als Notnagel oder Neuformierung von Zivilgesellschaft?"
Becker, Elke, Rudolf Speth, and Rupert Graf Strachwitz. 2016. "Zivilgesellschaft als Lotsen in die
Gesellschaft." OBSERVATORIUM. Analysen, Positionen und Diskurse zu Zivilgesellschaft,
Engagement und Philanthropie 8(4):1-6.
BMASK (Ed.). 2009. Freiwilliges Engagement in Österreich. 1. Freiwilligenbericht Wien:
Bundesministerium für Arbeit, Soziales und Konsumentenschutz.
—. 2015. "Bericht zur Lage und zu den Perspektiven des Freiwilligen Engagements in Österreich."
Wien: Bundesministerium für Arbeit, Soziales und Konsumentenschutz.
Carrera, Sergio, Steven Blocksman, Daniel Gros, and Elspeth Guild. 2015. "The EU´s Response to the
Refugee Crisis: Taking Stock and Setting Policy Priorities." CEPS Essay 20.
Edwards, Michael. 2009. Civil society. Cambridge [u.a.]: Polity Press.
Elbert, K., and D. G. Okamoto. 2013. "Social Citizenship, Integration and Collection Action: Immigrant
Civic Engagement in the United States." Social Forces 91(4):1267-92.
Fioramonti, Lorenzo, and Ekkehard Thümler. 2013. "Accountability, Democracy, and Post-growth:
Civil Society Rethinking Political Economy and Finance." Journal of Civil Society 9(2):117-28.
Frühwirth, Ronald, and Konrad Lachmayer. 2015. "Privatisierung der Flüchtlingsbetreuung. Zwischen
unternehmerischer Gewinnmaximierung und Zivilgesellschaft." Kurswechsel 4:70-74.
Glaser, Barney G., and Anselm L. Strauss. 2008. The Discovery of Grounded Theory: Strategies for
Qualitative Research. New Brunswick, N.J.: Aldine Transaction.
Hustinx, Lesley, Femida Handy, Ram A. Cnaan, Jeffrey L. Brudney, Anne Birgitta Pessi, and Naoto
Yamauchi. 2010. "Social and Cultural Origins of Motivations to Volunteer: A Comparison of
University Students in Six Countries." International Sociology 25(3):349-82.
Khvorostianov, Natalia, and Larissa Remennick. 2016. "‘By Helping Others, We Helped Ourselves:’
Volunteering and Social Integration of Ex-Soviet Immigrants in Israel." VOLUNTAS:
International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations:1-23.
Lindenberg, Marc. 1999. "Declining State Capacity, Voluntarism, and the Globalization of the Not-for-
Profit Sector." Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 28(Suppl. 1):147-67.
Meyer, Michael, and Ruth Simsa. 2013. "NPOs: Abgrenzungen, Definitionen, Forschungszugänge." Pp.
3-14 in Handbuch der Nonprofit-Organisation. Strukturen und Management, edited by Ruth
Simsa, Michael Meyer, and Christoph Badelt. Stuttgart: Schäffer-Poeschel.
—. 2014. "Developments in the Third Sector – The Last Decade and a Cautious View into the Future."
Pp. 203-15 in Modernizing Democracy? Associations and Associating in the 21st Century,
edited by Matthias Freise and Thorsten Hallmann. New York: Springer.
More-Hollerweger, Eva, and Paul Rameder. 2013. "Freiwilligenarbeit in Nonprofit Organisationen."
Pp. 381-99 in Handbuch der Nonprofit-Organisation. Strukturen und Management, edited by
Ruth Simsa, Michael Meyer, and Christoph Badelt. Stuttgart: Schäffer-Poeschel.
More-Hollerweger, Eva, Ruth Simsa, Günther Kainz, Franz Neunteufl, Romy Grasgruber-Kerl, and Felix
Wohlgemuth. 2014. "Civil Society Index – Rahmenbedingungen für die Zivilgesellschaft in
Morgan, Jules. 2015. "Agencies Struggle with Europe´s complex refugee crisis." The Lancet 386:2042-
Pennerstorfer, Astrid, Ulrike Schneider, and Christoph Badelt. 2013. "Der Nonprofit Sektor in
Österreich." Pp. 55-75 in Handbuch der Nonprofit Organisationen. Strukturen und
Management, edited by Ruth Simsa, Michael Meyer, and Christoph Badelt. Stuttgart:
Pollack, Detlef. 2004. "Zivilgesellschaft und Staat in der Demokratie." Pp. 23-40 in Zivilgesellschaft
und Sozialkapital. Herausforderungen politischer und sozialer Integration, edited by Ansgar
Klein, Kristine Kern, Brigitte Geißel, and Berger Maria. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für
Putnam, R. D. 1993. "Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy." Princeton:
University Press Princeton.
Salamon, Lester M., and Helmut K. Anheier. 1992. "In Search of the Nonprofit Sector I: The Question
of Definitions." Voluntas 3(2):267-309.
Salamon, Lester M., and S. Wojciech Sokolowski. 2016. "Beyond Nonprofits: Re-conceptualizing the
Third Sector." VOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations:1-
Schenk, Martin. 2015. "Traiskirchen: „Wir sind nur Dienstleister“. Kommerzialisierung und Zähmung
von Flüchtlings- und Sozialarbeit." Kurswechsel 4:75-79.
Schlager, Christa , and Cornelia Staritz. 2015. "Privatisierungsentwicklungen in der
Flüchtlingsbetreuung." Kurswechsel 4:68-70.
Selanec, Nika Bačić. 2015. "A Critique of EU Refugee Crisis Management: On Law, Policy and
Decentralisation." Croatian Yearbook of European Law and Policy 11(1):73-114.
Simsa, Ruth. 2015. "Ökonomisierung und die Entwicklung öffentlicher Finanzierung im NPO-Sektor:
Ausprägungen und Reaktionen der Organisationen." WISO Wirtschafts- und Sozialpolitische
Zeitschrift des ISW 38(4):12.
Simsa, Ruth , Maian Auf, Sara-Maria Bratke, Osama Hazzi, Michael Herndler, Marielisa Hoff, Judith
Kieninger, Michael Meyer, Mouhanad Mourad, Ina Pervan Al-Soqauer, Paul Rameder, and
Julia Rothbauer. 2016. "Beiträge der Zivilgesellschaft zur Bewältigung der Flüchtlingskrise –
Leistungen und Lernchancen." Vienna: WU, Vienna University of Economics and Business.
Szczepanikova, A. 2014. "Performing refugeenes in the Czech Republic: Gendered Depoliticisation
Through NGO Assistance." Gender, Place and Culture 17(4):461-77.
Valentinov, Vladislav, Stefan Hielscher, and Ingo Pies. 2015. "Nonprofit organizations, institutional
economics, and systems thinking." Economic Systems 39(3):491-501.
Vortkamp, Wolfgang. 2008. Integration durch Teilhabe: Das zivilgesellschaftliche Potenzial von
Vereinen. Frankfurt/New York: Campus
Waele, Els de, and Lesley Hustinx. 2014. "Volunteering through governments or government through
volunteering? A new theoretical framework for understanding volunteer work as an
instrument to integrate excluded individuals." Denver, Colorado.
Wallace, Claire 2003. "Migration Research from the Point of View of Sociology." Pp. 41 in Migrations-
und Integrationsforschung in Österreich: Ansätze, Schnittstellen, Kooperationen, edited by
Kommission für Migrations- und Integrationsforschung. Wien: Österreichische Akademie der
Wang, Lili, and Femida Handy. 2014. "Religious and Secular Voluntary Participation by Immigrants in
Canada: How Trust and Social Networks Affect Decision to Participate." VOLUNTAS:
International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations 25(6):1559-82.
Weng, Suzie S., and Justin S. Lee. 2015. "Why Do Immigrants and Refugees Give Back to Their
Communities and What can We Learn from Their Civic Engagement?" VOLUNTAS:
International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations 27(2):509-24.
Wimmer, Michael, Johanna Pisecky, Barbara Semmler, and Marion Titsch. 2016. "Empfehlungen an
die BKM im Hinblick auf Maßnahmen zur kulturellen Integration von geflüchteten
Menschen." Wien: EDUCULT/Q21.
Zimmer, Annette E., and Eckhard Priller. 2007. Gemeinnützige Organisationen im gesellschaftlichen
Wandel. Ergebnisse der Dritte-Sektor-Forschung. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für