Eberau’s Debacle

Interior Minister Fekter forgot that her first and most important duty is to the public

Opinion | Michael R. Weingartner | March 2010

It doesn’t normally get any weirder than this. In politics, there are always problems that remain unsolved, decisions that are eternally postponed because no one wants to take responsibility. Generally, politicians tend to fear responsibility, because one misjudgement may mean the end of a career. This is especially true when dealing with highly sensitive cases, which are often not made public at first, to minimize criticism.

Such behaviour is bound to backfire – as it has with Austrian Interior Minister Maria Fekter’s proposal to build a fourth intake center for asylum seekers in the town of Eberau, Burgenland.

There is a need; Fekter’s not wrong about that. In 2009, Austria received 15,900 applications for asylum, an increase of 23.3% over 2008. However, this is still well below the peak year of 2002, when roughly 40,000 refugees applied for asylum status, according to Statistik Austria. Ever since, Austria has been a welfare state allowing foreigners to settle, but when it joined the EU, it had to adjust its policies in compliance with the other member states.

So although overall numbers are down, Austria has at the same time experienced an alarming increase in petty crime over the last few years, especially in Vienna and Burgenland, assumed to have resulted from the EU expansion and the opening of the borders to Schengen member countries. According to the Austrian Review of Criminal Statistics, there has been a 3.3% increase in crime overall in 2009, compared to 2008.

Out of a total of 8,363 inmates in Austria, 45% are foreigners. Roughly 38% of those in detention are foreigners; but there is no difference made between people suspected of petty crime or hard crime. So does this automatically mean there had been an increase in crime committed by foreigners? Well, not necessarily.

Fekter commissioned the construction of a new center for asylum seekers without any prior discussion with the people or administration of Eberau. This secrecy led to a heated argument in the media about why there was never any dialogue when it came to such important decisions.

The people of Eberau were furious that they were not consulted in the first place. So, politicians and citizens alike joined in a call for a referendum, which eventually took place on Feb. 21, with Fekter promising to accept any outcome.

The proposition was voted down by a resounding majority 90.1%.

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