Osama Almughanni

Waiting in Asylum Seeker Accommodations
D'Costa Dulal holds the record for the longest running asylum case in Austria having arrived from Bangladesh in 1996 at the age of 20. After nine years, D'Costa received the first (negative) decision on his case. The pensioners to whom D’Costa has been selling newspapers the past years, know his situation and treat him with gratitude and empathy, saying: “He's been shaking for 18 years and cannot establish himself because, maybe tomorrow, he will be sent home.” [1] For D'Costa, the impact of the procedure on his life has been enormous. D'Costa’s case may seem particularly extreme compared with other normal cases, especially those related to the current Syrian crisis where procedures take between six to nine months. Nevertheless, asylum seekers are trapped in the state of waiting in all of these cases.
Asylum seekers in the Austrian asylum procedure are only supposed to be waiting in their assigned accommodations: for an interview, for a positive decision by the authorities, for positive news from home, for the temporary period to pass. Yet, when waiting time extends over months or years, is equalled to inactivity through regulations that do not allow for participation in the regular job market and ties the asylum seekers to their assigned location through compulsory attendance [2] one has to wonder about the pertaining lack of consciousness concerning possible roles or functions of asylum seeker accommodations.
Many spatial factors contribute to asylum seekers accommodations becoming more linked to waiting. Other evidences refer also that waiting may be a political approach of decision-makers in order to achieve certain objectives, [3] including an indirect indication to current or expected asylum seekers that any permanent residence permit is conditioned to a long period of waiting. Under these facts, many asylum seekers chose voluntarily to leave to their home countries or other countries, while many international and local organizations support them financially in order to encourage them to return to their country of origin. [4]
Waiting is usually the option which asylum seekers are not able to choose but have to accept. It is mostly described as a state of inactivity and passivity. Asylum seekers are waiting without an indication of an average timeframe until they receive their permanent residence permit. Often, they perceive this assigned waiting period as if life is put on hold and self-development is not permitted. While residing in remote areas or villages where opportunities are limited and not easily accessible, some asylum seekers have individually tried to break the time and the space barriers to become more active despite an undertermined procedure duration.
Being an asylum seeker is not a profession, nor a classification. Asylum seekers cannot be considered as a separate, homogenous community with the exact same hopes and ambitions, as some political parties are trying to put forward. The majority of asylum seekers have the desire to develop the skills they brought with them or to develop new ones, thereby cooperating with the local population. Unfortunately, to date, they are very rarely given the chance to do. Omar, a very energetic interior designer, whom I met at the entrance of the house Reichenau in Innsbruck during our field trip in April 2015, was hoping for a working space in the asylum accommodation in order to continue working on design projects which he now sells online. Unhappy about the rooms holding too many people to allow for working, no rooms dedicated to individual work and a too slow internet connection, he simply left for a coffee shop in the local neighborhood with all his equipment in his backpack. This kind of positive energy is rare and often turned into negative energy under the current regime of waiting. Solutions should be found that benefit and further enhance both the individual and society.

The Architecture of Waiting
Today, creating spaces dedicated to waiting has not exceeded designing airport waiting halls or huge transport stations, where waiting periods are mostly short and spaces are to provide comfort and entertainment to bridge a few hours of waiting. The architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable wrote about waiting rooms and described them as “prisons”. In her article titled “Read it while you wait” published in the the Milwaukee Journal, Huxtable wrote “Real, serious waiting is done in waiting rooms, and what they all have in common is their purpose, or purposelessness, if you will; they are places for doing nothing and they have no life of their own.” [5] She mentioned later in her book “Architecture, Anyone?” that if there is no common design or a stylistic formula to all waiting environments, it is still possible to analyze these spaces in terms of purpose or characteristics. [6]
However, throughout the past centuries, when the „house rules“ or spatial programs were still less stringent, waiting stations were not confined to the purpose waiting only, but represented hybrid typologies including many vital functions that were being developed by the users. Waiting lost its meaning unexpectedly inside such places, since the freedom to adapt and modify the space was given to all social classes. Thus, waiting stations became established and well-visited places for communication and sharing interests or benefits. During the Abbasid period from the eighth century to the sixteenth century, for example, Khans were established on the pilgrimage route running through Iraq and central Arabia. As a standard feature of Islamic architecture, comprising a square or rectangular enclosure with rooms built around a central courtyard, this building typology became established in trading towns, where they combined the function of a hostel and a trading centre. Khans represent an architecture typology that develops depending on needs and wants. The first function was to accommodate traders, promoters or brokers; the second function was to allow for selling and buying activities. Thus, the Khan was not only accommodating short-term visitors, but also provided a space for more permanent uses thanks to the trading activities. [7]

Common Interest
Sociologist Karl Mannheim wrote in his seminal book „Systematic Sociology. An Introduction to the Study of Society“, that „if two or more persons pursue an aim, which remains a unit for them, which they think is a whole, we speak about a common interest. Whereas alike interests lead to competition for the same good, common interests lead to co-operation. One of the most important problems for every harmonious society is how to turn like interests into common interests – how to turn competition into co-operation.“
As a classical example for long running interests, Mannheim thinks that interests such as landed interests can be much greater than money interests in recognising the behaviour of the individual, which in turn encourages the sense of belonging and the personal striving.
„One of the most important conditions for the growth of organised activities, and all self-organisation or life-organisation, is the creation of long run interests, and private property has been among the most significant forces in history creating a long run interest in the individual. Any complex system of production or social organisation needs long run activities and in the leading groups these activities were mostly created by private property. But they can also be created by organised common interest based on consciousness of common property, or by premiums given to the greatest common achievement.“
Irrational and emotional factors have a significant impact on shaping our social lives as well as on building our communities, but disregarding the role played by rational interests would be also a great fundamental mistake which may lead to an ignorance of the aspirations of other community members.
„The creation of disinterested behaviour in society is a very important problem which will occupy us again and again. It is stimulated by the fact that there is a more or less long chain of intermediate links between the first and last steps of our activities. The man who belongs to a socialist party, for instance, has perhaps not ever the chance to see the aims of the movement to which he belongs attained during his Lifetime. Thus, not only property, but every kind of cooperation and division of labours increases opportunities for abstract behaviour and develops the capacity to prolong the tension between wishes and their fulfilment.“ [8]
Common interests can be the starting point for establishing a new understanding for a new type of asylum seeker accommodation. When sociologist George C. Homans asked whether friendship or the common interests come first, he presumed that every friendship is a result of an intercourse and that every intercourse needs an occasion. He also wrote that „[i]f two men meet and have interests in common, they are apt to become friends; on the other hand, if they are friends, they will find occasions for getting together. And if they do not meet, their friendship is apt to ebb away. [...] As before, the two factors: the feeling the two men have for one another and their association with one another, are mutually dependent. But getting together is not something in itself, any more than friendship and common interests are. People do not just get together; they get together to do something.“ [9]
The property or occasion which Mannheim and Homans wrote about is a starting point to guarantee a continuous exchange and a successful process. This basic understanding is implemented in our daily practices and has to be extended to include asylum seekers as an integral part and not as a separate and distinct entity. No matter how motivated or skilled the asylum seekers are, their enthusiasm or ability to release their productive energy are also stifled by policies that do not encourage them to become a driving force in their own development process. Therefore, political obstacles that prevent asylum seekers from working or restrict their freedom of movement must be reconsidered in order for asylum seekers to be able to collaborate and cooperate with the local population on an equal footing.

A Perspective of A New Architectural Function
When trying to rethink asylum seeker accommodations in relation to the waiting period their guests are experiencing, a new design concept to respond to current accommodation standards may not be the first aspect needed to be tackled. At that point, it is clearly more important to revise the concept of waiting in itself and how it could be spatialised.
Spaces are experienced, to some extent, as if they are individuals with different personalities and characters. There are spaces that invite us to act and participate, while others may only offer comfort. Within asylum seeker accommodations that formerly housed tourists, waiting spaces which provide comfort and entertainment are frequent and clearly define the identity of the place as short-term guest accommodation.
A new asylum seekers accommodation has to rely on the principle of common interests to create a new identity which concerns itself less with waiting, but more with self-development and community building; a place where interests are gathered for the benefit of all. It has to be acknowledged, before the development of any design, that asylum seekers do not wish to have comfort spaces only. In fact, they are concerned with joining and participating in the local community at the earliest possible opportunity.

A Visual Implementation
The attached mapping is developed based on the example of the asylum seeker accommodation Bärenwirt in Weitensfeld (Carinthia) which accommodates nearly 20 asylum seekers at the moment. The offers and interests were assembled by the author in several conversations with asylum seekers located at the Bärenwirt. None of the asylum seekers skills or interests are officially inquired about at any stage of the asylum procedure; neither at the beginning nor at the end. As the skills of asylum seekers in Austria are not recorded, offers by the area residents or institutions are presented informally through direct contact with the manager of the asylum seekers accommodation.
In the asylum seeker accommodation in Weitensfeld, German language courses appeared to be one of the most frequent interests sought by asylum seekers, owing to the difficulties many of asylum seekers daily experience in being able to communicate. Besides the courses organized by the authorities or other non-profit organisations, asylum seekers constantly attend other external courses held by local volunteers who have also the willingness to develop and refine their teaching abilities. Some of the asylum seekers in Weitensfeld have also individual capabilities or skills that assisted in breaking down the language barriers and helped them to engage with the sport club in Weitensfeld after an invitation from the club.
This lack of offers which the mapping shows and the difficulty in linking the interests of the asylum seekers and residents are one of the consequences of lacking appropriate methods, that could be perhaps in the form of a data-based application, which could facilitate the mapping and communication process. The current problem does not lie in the lack of cooperation in itself but in the way of displaying the interests of the asylum seekers and the residents and linking them together.

An Application
An attempt to develop a new understanding of the role of asylum seekers needs to have supportive and proactive steps in order to have tangible results. It seems to be unreal to develop a new architectural function for an asylum seekers accommodation before having a clear understanding of the role of asylum seekers in the community that both asylum seekers as well as the residents are aware of.
In order to achieve this new understanding and to start its implementation, this project aims to provide asylum seekers in Austria, as well as the residents, an easily accessible online tool to interact spatially with each other as one community based on common interests. The concept is to present all possible interests within or near the areas where asylum seekers reside by sharing them individually or in groups as a kind of exchange of interests for mutual or individual benefit, whether by the inhabitants of the area or by the asylum seekers themselves. This online application could become one of the first information resources to be given to asylum seekers while arriving in their accommodations in order to reshape their perception of waiting inside these accommodations and reframe the current understanding of the role of asylum seekers in Austria.
The project is in progress and looks forward to the participation or support from interested persons, social activists and web-programmers in order to start establishing this online social platform to help persons who have the desire to join our community.




[1] The Local - Austria‘s News in English, An 18 year long wait for asylum, URL: http://www.thelocal.at/20140620/an-18-year-wait-for-asylum, accessed on 20.06.2014.

[2] See Anny Knapp, Leben im Flüchtlingsquartier. Standards in der Versorgung und Betreuung von Asylsuchenden, (12/2012), URL: http://www.asyl.at/fakten_2/leben_im_fluechtlingsquartier.pdf, 32, accessed on 20.06.2014.

[3] See Inge Baldinger, Tausende kehrten freiwillig heim, (06.02.2009) URL: http://www.verein-menschenrechte.at/presse/presse-2009-02-06.html, accessed on 20.06.2014.

[4] See Freiwillige Rückkehr, URL: http://www.unhcr.de/mandat/dauerhafte-loesungen/freiwillige-rueckkehr.html, accessed on 20.06.2014.

[5] Ada Louise Huxtable, Read it while you wait, The Milwaukee Journal, 10.03.1981.

[6] See Ada Louise Huxtable, Architecture, Anyone?, University of California Press, 09.03.1988.

[7] See Andrew Petersen, Dictionary of Islamic Architecture, (London: Routledge, 1996), 164.

[8] Karl Manheim, Systematic Sociology. An Introduction to the Study of Society. Volume VIII, (London: Routledge, 1957), 38.

[9] George C. Homans, The Human Group. Classics in Organization and Management, (London: Routledge, 1951), 7.


The Architecture of Waiting

Zum Vergrößern/Verkleinern auf das Bild klicken