Aliens at Large

Even when from the Diplomatic Academy, foreign students get a rough ride at MA35

Opinion | Sara Friedman | June 2011

Every year students at the Diplomatic Academy in Vienna hold a conference on a pressing political issue. This year the DA Student Initiative theme was migration. It was an impressive group of panelists, all or nearly all professionals at some of the many international organisations headquartered in Vienna, and all had essentially the same thing to say on the subject of immigration to Austria: The country needs highly skilled and qualified immigrants.

If this is true, Austria does a rather good job of hiding it. As all foreigners here know, the process is far from welcoming, and for evidence, one need look no further than the experiences of the Diplomatic Academy students themselves.

I’ll never forget my own initial experience at the Magistratsabteilung 35 on Dresdnerstrasse in the 20th District. First of all, it’s a trek: But after several U-Bahn transfers and walking about a kilometer, I arrived at the nondescript building, in a scenic location across from a car dealership. I walked into a fluorescently lit room and waited in a line for about half an hour to receive my number. Then I waited in another line to get into the elevator.

Finally I entered the big brightly lit waiting room on an upper floor, sat down on a hard plastic chair and opened a book, trying to ignore the huge crowd of people, men, women, whole families who were waiting for their numbers to appear on the screen. Signs were posted on the wall in German, and in about five other languages that I couldn’t read – Hungarian, Polish, Serbo-Croatian, Slovak, and Turkish, I learned later. Glancing at the German one, I learned that bribing the bureaucrats with cash to get your visa is forbidden. Good to know.

After three hours of waiting, despairing my turn would never come in this lifetime, finally my number was called. I walked down a narrow hallway to my assigned room and knocked on the door. I heard nothing. I knocked again, this time louder, and an angry bellow emanated from the room. Walking in, I was greeted by a very large, and very angry, woman who boomed out,

"WAAAS erwarten Sie?  Dass ich die Tür für Sie öffnen würde!?"  Welcome to Austria.

I crawled over to her, burbling incoherent apologies, and after a few minutes she smiled and told me that another bureaucrat would handle my visa request. Either my groveling or the magic words, "Ich bin Studentin an der Diplomatischen Akademie" won her over. In any case, after another hour’s wait, I sat in a different office with a grumpy but efficient woman who collected my small mountain of documents and, after several weeks and another two hours in the waiting room, I was presented with a one-year residence permit.

This year’s return mission to renew the visa required the same mountain of documents; however I was told after spending another two hours in the MA 35 in the 20th district that the renewal is best handled at one’s district office. There, the waiting rooms are much smaller. But don’t get too optimistic – the waiting time is the same.

War stories from MA 35 become something of a bonding ritual for foreign students at the DA.  Saurabh Sati, coming from Bangladesh writes "[l]ast year - I had to go there at least three times; the workers were not always friendly and the sheer bureaucracy – ah man! I thought we Indians had a monopoly on that thing! The waiting time implied that basically the first half of your day was pretty much a write-off."

Another student is slightly more complementary. "They were perfectly nice in all my dealings with them.  Unfortunately they were also completely incompetent." Apparently the MA 35 had, on one occasion, granted her a visa, but refused to actually hand it over to her until they received a supposedly missing document. They had lost the document themselves – she had handed it in with her initial visa application.

Tyler Botters, an American from an army family, had the unique experience of having to argue that his documents were not forgeries, with a bureaucrat he describes as "the hottest woman I ever hated."

Many students are led to believe that it is possible to apply for the visa and complete the entire process in one’s home country. No one actually succeeds in this endeavor, however; what is more, once they are here, the students are rarely able to gather all the documents they need. Such technicalities ensure that visa terms or durations are rarely optimal.

One Canadian student recently renewed her one-year visa and paid the 110-euro fee. Most of that time will be left unused: She is moving back home to Newfoundland in three months.  "A student visa for a masters program should last two years," she maintains. And while this might not make sense for the main university where turnover is higher, the Diplomatic Academy has a high retention rate and can hardly be seen as a cover for entering Austria under false pretences.

The irony of all this is that the DA is an official government training academy, similar to West Point in the U.S. or Sandhurst in Britain, and is partially funded by the Austrian Foreign Ministry. It is an Austrian state institution if ever there was one.  We students lead comparatively pampered lives, our calendars stuffed with talks by visiting dignitaries, wine-and-cheese evenings, cultural events, and so on. Eight hours of waiting for our visas once a year is certainly not the worst thing in the world.

But if the process is this difficult for us, the supposed elite and well-connected, what happens to everyone else?

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