In recent years the world has been in the grips of the worst refugee crisis since the horrors of WWII. Between January and August 2015 over 44,000 people applied for asylum in Austria alone. While much attention has been focused on immigration and asylum policies, there is a lack of data on the actual people; what are their backgrounds, qualifications, and expectations?

To address this, IIASA scientists are working with colleagues from the Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital (IIASA, VID/ÖAW, WU). Together the three institutions have designed a questionnaire for refugees in Austria, the first survey of its kind in German-speaking countries.

The team—consisting of over 40 researchers, students, and volunteers—is aiming for around 500 interviews with people seeking asylum in Austria, and the survey is carried out in Arabic, Farsi, and English. Zakarya Al Zalak, IIASA researcher in the World Population Program, former director of the Damascus Statistical Technical Institute, and a Syrian himself, speaks to science writer Daisy Brickhill about directing the work.

Why are you carrying out this survey?

We know almost nothing about the refugees as individuals. Who are these people? How much education have they received? What are their qualifications? What are their hopes and values? This kind of information is vital, because it can assist policymakers to design strategies to help these people integrate into Austrian society.

Training for the survey

Training for the survey. Photo credit: Judith Kohlenberger

What kind of questions do you ask?

There are six sections to our questionnaire. The first covers demography—things like age, sex, ethnicity, and religion. Even on these basic characteristics there is very little data. The second is about education. How long did they stay in school? What are their qualifications?

For the third section we focus on employment, asking whether they had a job before leaving their native country, and what their profession was. This will help assess the skills these people can bring to the Austria, and where they might be able to work. This is particularly important for integration, as it can help policymakers see where they might fit in to Austria’s workforce.

We use all kinds of questions and measures to get the most information possible. For example, when asking about health, we test the participants’ hand-grip strength. Previous IIASA research has shown that this is related to markers of aging, future disability, cognitive decline, and the ability to recover from hospital stays.

In the fifth section we ask about family. This is important because although many refugees are men travelling alone, they may be planning to bring their family once they have made a life for themselves.

You mentioned attitudes and values, how do you find out about these things with a simple questionnaire?

In the last section of the questionnaire we use several different approaches to explore attitudes. We ask whether they would mind if their children were taught about other religions at school, for instance. We also ask about their views on abortion and gender equality, among other things.

What are the next steps?

We finish sampling soon, so we are hoping to publish the preliminary results in January 2016. However, the most important part of the work is in the next stage. We have asked for participants’ contact details, and our plan is that we will reconnect with these people after some time, eight or nine months, say. At that point we can ask more about how they are finding life in Austria, and whether integration is going well. Have they taken a German language course, for example? Do they have work? Have they received training?

If we are unable to reach some people for follow-up there is a possibility of recruiting new participants. Although we will not have the data from the initial survey we can still ask them how long they have been here, and how their integration is going.

It must be difficult seeing your fellow Syrians in such dire straits.

Before coming to Austria, I worked with refugees in my own country. It seems strange to think of now, but at that time there were Iraqi people who had fled to Syria to seek asylum. Now, we are finding people who are “double refugees,” first fleeing to Syria from Iraq and then, as the situation in Syria worsened, from Syria to Austria. It must be an extremely hard journey. I very much hope this work helps policymakers to make things easier for them.

Austrian Academy of Sciences Press Release

This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.