23 August 2017

Social Services for Unaccompanied Minor Refugees in Vienna

Written by Mag. Josef Hiebl, DSP – Translation by Dunja Gharwal, MA


Every year more than ten thousand children from the war regions of the Middle East, Asia and Africa try to escape from war and prosecution under dramatic and unbelievable conditions without their parents to reach the European Union. 2015 about 88.000 unaccompanied minors (UMR) applied for Asylum in Europe – 9.300 UMR applied in Austria and another 4.500 UMR in 2016.

They have experienced indescribable challenges in their home country as well as one their escape routes. They come from more than 40 different countries, most of them from Afghanistan, Syria and Somalia. Some of them spend years to reach Europe. Many of them are under 14 years old, sometimes even 6-year-old children are able to make their way with help from human trafficker.

Legal framework:

Due to the European Union there are European Standards of social services for UMR which hardly are recognized and respected by most member states. These standards are regulated by the entry measures, the repatriation measures, the status measures and the Dublin III order. A valuable contribution to these standards also came from the UNHCR and the UNICEF guidelines (Save and Sound, 2014). The Austrian legislator and the Austrian Administration have additionally to respect the UN Child Convention as well as the Child act B-VG 2011. In 2004 the Basic-Service-Agreement Federation/Land covenants the minimum standards for social services for UMR.  It also defines the subdivision of asylum seekers in the state. The nine Austrian lands that are responsible for the Social services for UMRs have developed very different and innovative concepts for support services and care for this service user group. In the following text the Vienna Model of care and Services for UMR will be drafted.

The Viennese Model:

A short review to autumn 2015: within 2 months more than 300.000 refugees arrived in Vienna. Most of them continued their journey to Germany or up north. The Viennese Social Administration formed 65 temporary emergency shelters for adults and Families with more than 10.600 seats. 1,3 million overnight stays were registered. This challenge was managed by the Viennese Social Administration accompanied by the Funds Social Vienna (FSW) in cooperation with a high number of NGOS and the civil society. The established cooperation pattern between civil society and administration can be understood and seen as a best practice model in human/social challenges.

Due to the high number of UMRs the Vienna Youth Department established a coordination manager for UMRs and their needs in mutual agreement with the FSW to develop a city wide integrations supporting service and care concept for small accommodation provision.  Therefore the City of Vienna pinned its strategy on social pedagogic flat share. Starting with September 2015 more that 50 new social pedagogic flat shares for UMRs were established.  Another focus was given to foster and guest parents. At the same time the standards for providing custody and Asylum procedure advocacy was enhanced as well as care and service tolls like trauma pedagogic for UMRs was integrated in the service provision. A specific challenge for the youth department was family search and family reunification. Until the end of 2016 the Vienna Youth Department held more than 1.100 UMRs custody.


The Vienna Youth Department applies for custody for all UMRs (§ 211 Abs 1 2. Satz ABGB), who will stay in Vienna until the asylum court decision and further more until they are 18 years old.

The assistance and social work as well as social pedagogic for UMRs ask for specific approaches and special know-how in terms of intercultural social work, trauma- psychological knowledge or particular knowledge of Asylum and Foreign right acts.

Following the needs regarding custody provision and service planning Vienna focussed on two service concepts:

The crisis centre for unaccompanied children (Drehscheibe): This crises centre is a specialized service centre for all unaccompanied children. It is open 24/7 and addresses children until 14 years.  The staff members (social workers and social pedagogues) make sure what the needs of the children are, and work on a vulnerability analysis (trauma, child trafficking, forced labour…) and organize and manage the following service provision.  If a UMR will be taking in detention prior to deportation the crisis centre offers as the mildest method to avoid a residence in jail for this vulnerable group.

Share Flat pedagogic:  UMRs live in Share flats in Vienna, which have to be approved by the Vienna Child and youth law 2013 and which are controlled and supervised by the youth department. These share flats are located all over the City of Vienna to guarantee a maximum of integration. Between 8 and 15 youngsters live together and are guided by social workers, social pedagogues, psychologists, psychotherapists and disability assistants 24/7.

The Vienna social pedagogic has changed since 2015. There are hardly any shard flats that don´t have to tackle the social fields of escape, interculturality or trauma pedagogic. As a most helpful and successful tool by working with UMRs the peer group meetings must be mentioned where the children can ask and talk about their experiences always accompanied by social pedagogues.  In day to day work, the establishment of video interpreters is another tool that provides the current access to more than 500 interpreters. There are also new recreationally instructive projects due to trauma psychological wise that fulfill a major function. The creation of information material for UMRs in German, English, Arabic, Farsi and Dari, Pashtu and French were designed to inform and welcome the youngsters in their new home. This approach makes sure that all young people get orientation and security in a new environment and an introduction to a different culture. A specific focus was given on prevention of radicalisation. The City of Vienna established a network of de-radicalisation across all departments. All these new activities require a huge need of trainings for the staff of the youth department and relevant partner organizations.

Foster Parents and Guest Parents:

Foster- and guest parents offer a good precondition for integration.  In cooperation with NGOs like SOS child village a new manual and curriculum for UMR foster and guest families was developed. The programmes focus on a wide range of knowledge about special needs and psycho social phenomena that appear in the life stream of a youngster after escape. The parents should be well prepared to cope with these challenges. During the caring by foster – and guest parents supporting associations accompany them. One of these supporting associations also includes former UMRs who bring in their personal experience and find a trustful way to communicate those to the youngsters. Right now 50 UMRs stay with foster- or guest families.

Trauma Pedagogic:

Every child and every youngster has this or her own history, narrative, culture and reasons for escape. Just one thing unites all these kids: They are totally alone in a new culture. Many of them went through traumatic situations that show off much later. Therefore the psychological service of the youth department Vienna developed programmes for UMRs and their carer to address these needs by applying nonverbal trauma pedagogical tools. Folders and videos were produced to cover these instruments in different languages. These videos are distributed by You Tube.

Special Facilities:

The most challenge is still to develop programmes for highly traumatised UMRs. There are view special facilities for these children in Vienna, but it is still a fact that Vienna needs more accommodations for this most vulnerable group.  This year a new facility for high traumatised UMRs will open its doors for 24 seats.

Advocacy for Asylum procedure:

The division of asylum advocacy represents 1.000 UMRs at court. These processes are legal extremely complicated and also very exhausting for the children. Although the National Asylum and Foreigner Court expanded its team in the last year most processes still take to long for the children.  Therefore the division offers regularly information days for UMRs to answer legal or procedure questions to offer a minimum on security and orientation for the children. The division also is responsible for the important coordination in the care system regarding child trafficking, forced marriage or family search as well as family reunification following the Dublin III agreement. The division also coordinates and accompanies children who want or have to go back to their home country. In cooperation with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and other experienced NGOs the division focuses on a maximum on child appropriate procedures.

Youth College “Start Vienna”:

Many of the UMR arrivals will stay in Austria. The City of Vienna therefore peruses the principle of “integration from the first day on”. The earlier integration measures are offered to the asylum seekers the better it is.

The youth college “Start Vienna” is a modular concept for a maximum of 1.000 students and a study timeframe of 9 months. Youngsters between 15 and 21 years can start their training during the asylum process to enter the regular education system. A specific education hub evaluates education skills and knowledge of the students to create unites that are geared to the needs of them. In cooperation with the youth department and other departments the City of Vienna offers Welcome information programmes introducing topics like human rights, culture and religion, health, asylum law, education, trauma, gender, rights and obligations.


Migration always challenges the receiving country and comes along with problems and chances. In a long term view receiving societies make a large profit from the migration movement. The willingness to help people in need in 2015 is hardly mentioned in the media anymore. But restrictions for human rights are demanded weekly. In the field of work with refugees a various bunch of new living-, care-, free time- and godfather projects within the social administration as well as in and with the civil society has to be evaluated and developed further.


First published: Sozialpädagogische Impulse, 2/2017, MBC-Verlag, Austria