Austria expands the Humanitarian Admission Programme from 500 to 1500 Syrian refugees

Contribution from the National Network Focal Point in Austria, IOM

On 19 April 2014 Federal Minister of the Interior Johanna Mikl-Leitner declared that the Austrian Humanitarian Admission Programme (HAP), which shall support the most vulnerable refugees among them women, children and persecuted minorities, will be expanded from 500 to 1500 Syrian refugees. With this initiative Austria follows its humanitarian tradition, and is ranked second after Germany with regard to European Member States offering protection to Syrian refugees.

Full support for the initiative came from Vice Chancellor Michael Spindelegger, who originally announced the admission of the first 500 Syrian refugees in late August 2013[1], and Federal Minister for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs Sebastian Kurz as well as from UNHCR, several NGOs and religious representatives such as Cardinal Christoph Schönborn from the Archdiocese of Vienna and the president of Caritas Austria Michael Landau.[2]

Starting in autumn 2013, the first part of the HAP addressing 500 Syrian refugees was jointly organized by the Federal Ministry of the Interior, the former Federal Asylum Office[3], the former Federal Ministry for European and International Affairs[4], UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The programme was designed to assist Syrian refugees directly from the crisis region and was offered separately from the ongoing asylum procedure.

The main aim of the HAP was to support neighbouring states and to set a signal for solidarity in the international community. The same approach has been chosen for the expanded HAP. The increase in numbers was justified by the current dramatic situation in Syria and it was highlighted again that the programme does not target Syrian refugees who have already found protection in another EU Member State.

The first part of the programme followed a twofold approach: 250 Syrian Christians with family ties in Austria (or other linkages) were selected in cooperation with the Church (mainly the Syrian-Orthodox Church); and another 250 most vulnerable Syrian refugees were selected by UNHCR. The UNHCR identification and selection process was assisted by resettlement experts of the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC) that were deployed to UNHCR in Jordan and other locations. It was not possible for refugees to apply to the programme directly, and the Federal Ministry of the Interior had the final say in the selection process. IOM was responsible for organizing the transfer to Austria.[5]

The religious criterion was criticized mainly by NGOs, who argued that UNHCR criteria should be used exclusively.[6] The Austrian government highlighted that refugees would not be excluded from the programme due to religious affiliation, but that Christians were the main minority group affected by the war. The Federal Ministry of the Interior stated that around 10% of the Syrian population is Christian, meaning that there are two million Christians in the country, who are perceived to be in an especially difficult situation as they belong to a religious minority.

The first arrivals of Syrian refugees were scheduled for October 2013[7], and the first four persons from Amman (Jordan) arrived at Vienna International Airport on 1 October 2013.[8] According to IOM data from April 2014, 250 of the Syrian refugees under the first category of the HAP have arrived in Vienna from three different countries of asylum: 192 persons came from Beirut (Lebanon), 54 from Istanbul (Turkey) and four from Amman (Jordan). From the second category of refugees under the auspices of UNHCR, 47 Syrian refugees arrived in Vienna from Amman (Jordan) as of April 2014.[9]

However, the afore-mentioned processes take time, and the persons benefitting from the programme also need time to prepare themselves to migrate. For them, being included in a resettlement programme to the EU means giving up hope that peace might be possible in Syria in the nearer future and the realization that they have to seek a new home for good. This is not an easy process, as people often prefer to stay close to home near their relatives and friends. Consequently, the refugees have to finalize several issues prior to migrating to Austria such as organizing papers from schools and work, getting information on the programme, applying for and receiving travel documents, organizing the trip, talking to relatives and family to say good-bye, having medical checks, etc. Thus, while the call for immediate action is understandable in the face of the humanitarian crisis, it is sometimes counter-productive to rush the persons concerned.Due to a variety of reasons - negotiations with the host governments, establishment of the legal basis for the programme, organizing the selection process and communication with the respective refugees, coordination of stakeholders involved in the process plus logistical questions - the arrival of the refugees took longer than originally expected by many stakeholders.

To prepare the beneficiaries to a limited extent for their arrival and stay in Austria, IOM has prepared a small information leaflet (in Arabic) that is given to the refugees prior to their departure.

After the arrival, refugees will be brought to the initial reception center in Traiskirchen close to Vienna. They will be offered medical support, will be granted asylum after a short interview and will stay for one to three days in the center until a destination has been found. Some of the Syrian refugees will be accommodated by relatives already living in Austria and others will stay in an accommodation in the framework of the basic welfare system for asylum seekers for up to four months. However, accommodation could constitute a challenge in the future, as relatives might lack space and resources, and the existing care system might not be able to offer enough support services to the target group.[10]

Furthermore, to support the integration of the UNHCR cases, the Austrian government released a call on integration measures in March 2014[11]. On the basis of a lump sum, the following deliverables were included in the tender:

·         initial support services and counselling

·         literacy and language courses

·         education and  employment counselling

·          counselling on accommodation possibilities.

The outcomes of the tender are not yet available, UNHCR has made a strong call to EU Member States to participate in the Core Group on Syrian Resettlement[12] chaired by Sweden, and to participate in initiatives supporting Syrian refugees. Austria is answering this call by increasing the numbers for the HAP from 500 to 1500 persons. Austria based HAP numbers on the German programme offering admission to 5000 Syrian refugees, making the Austrian HAP of an equivalent size in relation to each country's population (the Austrian HAP equates to 10% of the German equivalent programme). So, with an increase of a further 1000 refugees, Austria extents this numbers and is therefore setting a strong example for international solidarity and humanitarian support.

[2] Österreich nimmt 1000  Syrische Flüchtlinge zusätzlich auf, available at

[3] Once in Austria, the refugees are granted a status of international protection (ex offizio; Article 3 Paragraph 4 of the Asylum Law 2005) giving the bearer the right to stay in Austria for an unlimited duration. The institution has now been absorbed into the Federal Office for Immigration and Asylum.

[4] Now re-named to the Federal Ministry for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs.

[5] For information from the government in German on the HAP see

[6]Kleine Zeitung: NGO-Kritik an Bevorzugung christlicher Flüchtlinge. Available online at

Die Flüchtlings-Streit: "SPÖ redet Christenverfolgung klein".

Available online at; Tagesanzeiger: Flüchtlinge: Österreich will vorab Christen. Online available at

[7] Salzburger Nachrichten: Syrische Flüchtlinge kommen im Oktober. Available online at

[8] Erste syrische Flüchtlinge gelandet. Available online at

[9] The data is produced by the IOM Country Office for Austria. For data protection reasons, only numbers can be presented; names and contact details are confidential.

[10] In September 2013 the media reported that the nine provinces of Austria were quite cautious when it came to the accommodation of Syrian refugees. Kleine Zeitung, Syrien-Flüchtlinge: Bundesländer zurückhaltend (04.09.2013), In March 2014 the situation did not change significantly, but some accommodations were found, e.g. Salzburg offered 30 places.

[12] The Core Group should ensure long-term state support for a robust response to the Syria refugee crisis. For more information see UNHCR: