All over the world, we are struggling to adapt to the ‘new normal’ brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. As a project focusing on the impact of migration on local development of rural and mountain regions, the work of MATILDE has also been affected by the virus and lockdown measures, in terms of both the way we carry out the research and our specific areas of interest. Therefore, as a consortium with 25 project partners and 19 supporting partners in 10 European countries, we wanted to ask our stakeholders about the impact of this ‘new normal’ on the lives of immigrants and what it means in terms of local development.

The first contributor to our ‘New Normal in MATILDE Migration’ interview series, which we aim to photograph today, is okay.zusammen leben’ from Vorarlberg.

Okay.zusammen leben is a competence center on migration and integration in Vorarlberg, the most western province of Austria.  Among their tasks: they provide information and advice to different stakeholders in the field of migration; they develop concrete integration measures for migrants in the region; and they implement programs and facilitate the networking of people involved in integration. Program manager of the association, Caroline Manahl, describes migrants’ conditions and challenges in times of COVID-19.

Caroline Manahl

How has your work with migrants changed after the spread of COVID-19 and the following emergency measures?

Caroline Manahl : Our organization ‘okay.zusammen leben’ provides information and counselling to institutions and organizations, such as the regional government, municipalities and NGOs. We are also regularly in contact with migrant associations, but we do not provide services for migrants at the individual level.

Since COVID-19 started to spread in Austria in spring 2020, we are much engaged in the collection, translation and dissemination of pandemic related information in the languages most used by migrant communities in Vorarlberg. We are also closely observing the impact of COVID-19 on the labour market, educational system, integration activities, etc.; and we try to assess how the pandemic affects the inclusion of migrants in the region.

What are the common challenges faced by migrants and refugees living in Vorarlberg in times of pandemic? How do they differ from the ones of the local population?

C.M.: We have seen a sharp rise of unemployment rates in spring 2020. This growth was stronger among migrants than among non-migrants, but it also differed between groups of foreigners: the most affected were migrants from other European countries who are often working in tourism sector.

The unemployment of refugees also increased, but not as much as in other Austrian regions. Most likely because in Vorarlberg the employment of refugees is less focused on sectors like tourism and gastronomy than in other regions. Luckily, the situation of the labour market has slightly eased since summer.

What also concerns us are the potential negative effects of school closures and distance learning on the education of kids. We know these learning circumstances are especially challenging for disadvantaged students. Also, COVID-19 affects the implementation of integration activities targeted on migrants and refugees, such as German language courses, the support of volunteers in language learning or projects at local level. We observed that such activities have been paused or reduced in the last months.

What about the migrants who are living in urban areas? Do you recognize any positive or negative aspect of living in a rural and mountainous region?

C.M.: Vorarlberg is a small province in which rural and urban areas are closely linked. People travel for work, education or social purposes from rural to more densely populated areas every day. The number of people infected by COVID-19 is higher in the urban areas and therefore the measures to prevent the spread of the virus are stricter in those one.

Looking to the future, what long-term impact do you think the situation triggered by COVID-19 will have on the population of Vorarlberg?

C.M.: Long-term impacts of COVID-19 will be felt stronger by the population with a weak socio-economic background. This population have more difficulties to get back to labour market, they have less capacities to support their children in distance learning and they rely mostly on public support.

However, the contribution of migrants to the Austrian economy and society has become more visible now, since certain economic sectors depend strongly on migrant workers, like elderly care and harvest work in agriculture. Now, we are wondering if this will have a long-lasting impact on the public discourse on migration: unfortunately, we have no evidence of such an effect so far.