Austria is one of the richest countries in the world (twelfth according to IMF rankings), Vienna, the number one international city in terms of quality of living (according to Mercer’s ranking).
Winter tourism, whether for sight-seeing, shopping or skiing, is the country’s pride and this year would have been no exception to the rule, appearances intact, were it not for a protest camp of asylum-seekers set up right in front of the central and famous neo-Gothic Votive Church in Vienna’s ninth district.
Inside the church forty asylum-seekers have found refuge, fourteen of them are in hunger strike. Their demands and those of their supporters, who had been camping outside the church until they were forcefully removed yesterday morning, are basic:
• Improvement of hygiene and living conditions in the refugee camps.
• Provision of support services, such as translation, when going to the doctor.
• Opportunity to work while awaiting the decision of application for asylum.
• Access to school for children.
• Improvement of legal support when dealing with authorities.
• Right to be heard in decisions regarding placements.
• Speed up of legal procedures regarding the granting of refugee status.
The treatment of refugees in Austria is not merciless like it is in the infamous Lampedusa or at the Greek-Turkish border. But it remains flawed, like also in Germany, the Netherlands and France, where refugee demonstrations are also underway.
Specifically in Austria, the problems faced are the result of the lack of adequate coordination between the federal and state governments. For instance, the overcrowding of some refugee camps, such as Traiskirchen in Lower Austria, is the direct result of the refusal by other states to cater to refugees or construct new reception centers.
In Europe more generally, there still prevails the distorted view that the European quality of life can only be secured through the combination of strict migration and asylum policies. Refugees are often thought to be economic migrants and, therefore, illegitimate strangers at the gates. There is little acknowledgement of the economic need to further migration; and even less recognition of the rightful wish to escape poverty, other than by paying lip-service to the importance of development aid. Yet only few European countries – and Austria is not one of them – are meeting the UN agreed target of 0.7 per cent of GNI with respect to official development assistance.
As the year 2012 nears its conclusion, it is worth recalling that the spirit of democratic culture lies not alone in the procedures for arriving at majority views but also, perhaps more importantly, in the treatment of minorities and of those persecuted.