Seeking Sanctuary: Refugees Protest Asylum Law

Since 63 men began a hunger strike in the Votivkirche in December, the Austrian government faces growing pressure to reform its approach to displaced persons

Top Stories | Lauren McKay, Margaret Childs | February 2013

The Refugee Protest Camp in Vienna's Votivkirche (Photo: Herbert Neubauer/APA)

It was freezing outside the Votivkirche in mid-January as a small group of journalists waited for the Caritas social workers to open the doors. "You’ll have to wait about an hour," we were finally told. "There are just too many journalists in there now." The security guards, hired by Caritas, turned away a few unknowing Italian tourists as they handed one of the men emerging from inside a turquoise pass to leave the "camp" and come back.

An hour later inside the church, it was barely above freezing, maybe three degrees Celsius. To the right of the altar, a throng of sleeping bags, rucksacks, old blankets and clothing were what was now being called Refugee Protest Camp Vienna.

The 63 asylum seekers – all men – who have found shelter in the church are taking a stance that has no precedent in Austria. They are demanding asylum law reform and some 40 have gone on a hunger strike to support their claim. Due to severe heath concerns, they recently lifted the fast for 10 days, and will stop eating again on 1 February if demands are not met.

A similar camp at Berlin’s Oranienplatz was set up in October and permitted to remain by Mayor Klaus Wowereit. Not so in Vienna, where the police broke up the camp located in the Sigmund Freud Park on 28 December, without any interference from Mayor Michael Häupl. The protestors, the vast majority of whom come from Pakistan, moved from the park inside the church, and began the hunger strike.


Breaking the silence

Mir Jahangir is an asylum seeker from Kashmir, one of 45 hunger strikers. He has been hospitalised twice and has lost eight kilos. Despite the health risks, he believes that a hunger strike "is the only way to take non-violent action against the government".  

"These are desperate people," says Klaus Schwertner, the press spokesperson for Caritas. "They want to know whether they can stay here or not, they want to work here, want to take care of themselves and want to contribute, pay taxes, they don’t want to be dependant on social services." The organisation has been supporting the refugees’ struggle with medical care, facilitating volunteer German lessons and laundry service, as well as organising laptop donations for the church-dwellers.

More support comes from people like Georg Bürstmayr, a lawyer specialising in asylum law and human rights who has made this issue a personal cause. He has spent long hours with the men, helping them think through their individual situations and options. "It might only have been a question of time," he said, "before asylum seekers and migrants speak up for themselves, even in Austria."

But no one expected the pressure of a hunger strike.

Those helping them have been impressed by their courage. "They have achieved so much already," said Schwertner, who has voiced deep concern about the health of the refugees. "They have done more in this short period of time than many refugee and human rights organisations." There was a round table before Christmas with representatives from the Austrian Federal Chancellery, the Interior Ministry, NGOs, Caritas, the Deaconry and the UNHCR. Even the Vice President of the European Parliament, Othmar Karas, has visited the camp.

Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner met with the asylum seekers on 2 January to discuss their demands, but she remained unmoved. The Austrian asylum system is "one of the best asylum systems in the whole of Europe," she said, adding that changing the laws on fingerprints and relocation would contradict the EU. The Dublin Regulation prevents simultaneous claims by the same person in different EU member states – known as "asylum shopping". Bürstmayr explained that "every decision made by a country in the EU is valid for all other member states. They have no second chance."


Whose home is dangerous enough?

This puts asylum seekers in limbo: They cannot legally stay in Austria, nor can they return to their homeland. "Many of the asylum seekers protesting in the Votivkirche will have a very hard time getting recognition as refugees according to the Geneva Convention," said Bürstmayr. This applies particularly to those from Pakistan. "They have fled from very complicated and threatening situations but still they might not [technically] be refugees."

Of the 1,718 asylum applications made in Austria by Pakistani citizens in 2012, only 14 were accepted. Adalat Khan is from the Swat region of Pakistan, where 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by the Taliban last October for her activism surrounding education and women’s rights.

"Pakistan is a more dangerous area than Syria at the moment, but Austrian people don’t understand that," Khan explained.

This discrepancy arises from a concept called "domestic flight alternative": If there is an area within an asylum seeker’s home country where they can feasibly go to live without danger, as in Pakistan, they are not considered a refugee. Additionally, Pakistanis are often thought to have economic reasons for seeking asylum. Mir Jahangir refutes this.

"They think that people come here for money. It’s not true," he said. "If I joined a terrorist group and I just put one bomb blast somewhere, they’d give me lots of money." He is not laughing. "But we don’t want this kind of criminal life." He stressed that most of the protesters were well-educated and many had begun learning German, but without prospects of a work permit or a future in Austria, efforts to assimilate seem futile. Jahangir thinks understanding the issues on both sides is key: "Education is the only way."


Political response

The Green Party has responded by revisiting proposals for asylum reform and the Social Democrats (SPÖ) have initiated a working group to facilitate entry into the job market. On the right, the Freedom Party (FPÖ) launched an ad campaign in January proclaiming: "Asylum Fraud is Illegal" with the subtitle, "All supporters are accessories to a crime… and the occupiers of the Votivkirche? Put them in custody, force feed and deport them! We will not be blackmailed."

Klaus Werner-Lobo of the Green Party was outraged. "These people aren’t telling lies," he told the Austrian daily Die Presse. For the first time, refugees are not begging for help, but are making demands, "because they want to live, not just survive." The refugees feel the racism and fear of the Austrian public, the lack of trust in the refugees’ intentions. "Nothing will change… 60 per cent are against us, they are blaming us," Jahangir sighed, looking out over the sleeping bags.

The fear seems to be contagious, despite offers from Caritas to move to warmer quarters (e.g. a homeless shelter), the men are sceptical. "Inside the church, we are safe," said Jahangir, "but it’s my personal opinion that if we go to some other place, they will deport us and send us back home."


A way out?

"The most important question is access to Austrian labour markets," said Bürstmayr. "There are many asylum procedures that take two, three, four years or even more and asylum seekers have to wait idly, all that time. They get accommodation and heating and three meals a day and nothing else," he explained, "and this can drive people crazy."

It is, he says, almost impossible that all demands be met, but some proposals may be feasible. "It is very hard for all parties dealing with this conflict to find a solution where nobody will lose face. In the end, it might be a very Austrian solution, with agreements made behind closed doors."

The men in the Votivkirche are between 20 and 40 years old, in the prime of their working lives, waiting for a future that may never come. Most have lost hope.

"Nothing will change," Jahangir kept repeating, disheartened. "In Austria, nothing will change."

For more on Vienna’s Votivkirche, see "The Emperor, the Tailor and The Church of Deliverance" in Oct 2012 TVR.


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