COVID-19 in the context of flight and integration – social implications of the pandemic for the Syrian and Afghan community and for NGOs involved in refugee support in Vienna

Objectives and research questions

This is a joint project of the Institute for Urban and Regional Research and the Institute for Social Anthropology, receiving COVID19-Rapid-Response-2020 funding. The two institutes combine their resources in the form of contacts with migrant organisations and research expertise involving the Syrian (ISA) and Afghan (ISR) expatriate communities in Vienna.

Refugees belong to the groups of people at high risk through COVID-19. Even before taking flight and during their journeys, refugees would often have spent time in settings which can be designated as ‘states of emergency’. Again, they now find themselves in an exceptional situation. Social distancing is the main strategy towards curbing the spread of infections. How do refugees deal with this challenge? Persons who have been granted asylum or subsidiary protection often must live under rather crowded circumstances. Furthermore, these persons are obliged to make frequent use of social networking within their communities of origin, with Austrian friends, mentors, language teachers, and with members of NGOs. These contacts constitute one of their most important strategies of integration.

The reactions of refugees from Syria and Afghanistan to the COVID-19 crisis and the manifold changes in all walks of life should be documented amid this volatile situation. New structures arise within these communities. They are characterised by the utilisation of online communication and include spiritual content, support with day to day chores, and forums of discussion. Our research includes the current experiences made by organisations offering refugee support. Data is collected according to a mixed-method approach containing elements of community-based participatory research (CBPR), leading to a multi-step analysis. We base our work on a partially standardised questionnaire (n=100) with a translation into Arabic and Farsi-Dari. It includes questions relating to measures of protection against infection, dissemination of information, adherence to governmental measures of mobility restriction, changes in social conduct, support by migrant organisations and associations, living and working conditions, isolation, conflict, and domestic violence.

Five to ten semi-structured telephone/Skype interviews with NGO experts and key actors within community initiatives will complement our data collection efforts, and in a community feedback round (cf. CBPR approach), the Arab-Austrian House of Arts and Culture will be involved in the survey, offering support in consultation and mediation. The Afghan community will likewise be represented through organisations with whom established contacts already exist. Our results will be used to draw up a catalogue of recommendations for NGOs and refugee organisations in their dealing with the COVID-19 crisis and other possible future situations of crisis and emergency.

ISR Project team 

MMag. DDr. Josef Kohlbacher

Petra Köck, MA

Marie Lehner, BA

Research period

01-05-2020 to 30-09-2020


This project has received funding from the  WWTF.