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Austria's refugees increasingly rejected by society

08 November 2004, 15:57 CET

Refugees and asylum seekers are increasingly unwelcome in Austria, long considered a safe haven, partly because politicians and police portray them as a threat to society, observers say.

"The climate for refugees has deteriorated, as in other countries. Since September 11, 2001, people increasingly feel there is a threat from outside," said Roland Schoenbauer, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees' (UNHCR) representative in Vienna.

A recent study by the independent IMAS institute found that 65 percent of Austrians believed refugees were "a liability" and only nine percent thought that they were "useful".

"The climate has been poisoned by declarations from all sides that implicate refugees in the drug trade," notably those coming from Africa, Schoenbauer said.

The far-right Freedom Party of Joerg Haider, the junior coalition party in conservative Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel's government, routinely whips up public sentiment againt foreigners, portraying them as dangerous or a drain on the country's resources.

The head of Vienna's judicial police, Roland Hornbacher, on Thursday told journalists a number of Nigerians in Austria were drug dealers who had destroyed their identity documents and submitted fraudulent asylum applications.

But the government points out that in spite of what its critics say, there has been an increase in the number of people given asylum.

Interior Minister Ernst Strasser said on Thursday that the number of successful asylum requests had risen to 50 percent this year, from 37 percent in 2003 and 20 percent the year before.

Since 2002, some 72,000 foreigners have applied for asylum and 24,000 were successful.

At the moment there are 30,000 people in Austria waiting to hear the outcome of their applications.

Some 1,300 of these are living at the country's biggest holding centre at Traiskirchen, some 30 kilometres (18 miles) south of Vienna.

In October the residents of the town presented a petition with 12,000 signatures calling for the closure of the centre after some petty crimes in the area.

Since then the federal government has been pressing the country's nine provinces to house more refugees to take the burden off Vienna, and notably to take in several hundred of those housed at Traiskirchen.

Many of those living in the well-kept centre with its garden and vast dormitories say they are optimistic that they will soon be granted political asylum.

The majority here come from Africa, followed by Chechnya and Afghanistan.

Katyura, a 17-year-old Maoist rebel from Nepal, said he was hopeful for a happy ending to the long journey that took him from a Kathmandu jail for plotting to overthrow Nepal's King Gyanendra to Austria.

Michael, a 24-year-old Ukrainian who had been a policeman in his home country, said he fled because he "could no longer stand communism ... it is still rearing its head at home."

Austria had been a first port of call for those fleeing neighbouring communist states during the Cold War, notably from Hungary and Czechoslovakia, and for 15 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain as it formed the eastern border of the European Union.

But since the bloc on May 1 took in 10 new members, most of them to the east, human rights groups say the country has been returning refugees to their transit countries where their plight is uncertain.

Anny Knapp, the president of "Asylkoordination", an umbrella organisation of some 20 Austrian non-governmental groups, complained that the government has been "sending as many as possible refugees back" to their new EU neighbours, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia and Slovenia.

"These countries are now considered as 'safe third countries' where refugees enjoy legal protection but we fear that in fact they often send the refugees back to their countries of origin where they are persecuted," Knapp said.

Austria's supreme court last month snubbed the government when it ruled that a key plank in a new restrictive immigration law was unconstitutional.

The court declared that it was wrong to deny asylum seekers the possibility of presenting new arguments in favour of their applications when they are appealing a decision against them.

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