Austria has a new president-elect, Alexander Van der Bellen, a Green Party economist who ultimately prevailed over the xenophobic right, and a new chancellor, Christian Kern (pictured), the former director of railways, though not a technocrat, who has already given signals to the left: “We must regain the hegemony from the right and reaffirm the Social Democratic fundamental principles.” It’s the opposite of the rightward sprint of his predecessor, Werner Faymann.
But will they be able to change the Austrian policy of walling off immigrants and refugees? It is too early to say.
In recent days, Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka sent more policemen to the Brenner Pass. On Wednesday, the outgoing President of the Republic, Heinz Fischer, ratified a restrictive amendment to the asylum law passed by the coalition government of Social Democrats and Popular parties before the arrival of Kern and his four new ministers. The new law authorizes the state to reject any asylum request if the country is under a declared state of emergency. The Popular Party conditioned its approval in order to accept the radical changes of the Social Democratic leadership.
Kern had to take the bait, but clarified that additional discussions are needed to determine when and how to apply this law. In his first speech in parliament, he announced plans to open access to employment for asylum seekers upon their arrival to promote the integration of those already landed in Austria.
But those who have already arrived can suddenly disappear. That’s exactly what happened Monday in Enzersdorf, a small town of a few hundred souls in Lower Austria. A group of 20 Afghans were feeling more at ease in the village and decided to have a party on Sunday. It was an elaborate affair: There was kabeli, basmati rice with carrots, raisins and beef and other Afghan dishes; a performance by the Kontaktchor group, a mixed choir composed of Afghans and locals; a 14-year-old Afghan girl gave a speech in German, showing she has already learned a bit thanks to the work of a local group called Let’s Help Together. There was an ambiance of joy and sharing.
A few hours later, at around 7 a.m., four policemen knocked on the door of the house and carried off a young family, Naser, 28; his wife Afsaneh, 22, and their two children, Benjamin, 8, and Ateve, 5. The family of four was taken to a center in Vienna.
“I wanted to say goodbye to them and bring them things and money,” says Barbara Gabriel, who was following them closely, “but they did not let me in.” The same thing happened to the other volunteers who rushed to Vienna to visit them. The support the family was receiving has been suddenly discontinued: Naser had to finish dental care, and the children were about to start a specialized therapy to overcome trauma. On Wednesday, the family was expelled to Croatia.
According to Austria, Croatia is the proper jurisdiction to manage their asylum application. But in Croatia, they are in danger of being mass deported to Serbia, as happened in February to more than 200 refugees rejected at the Slovenian border. Serbia is considered unsafe because it does not carry out asylum procedures. In effect, this constitutes a re-opening of the Balkan route, but in reverse: Refugees are being shuttled in the opposite direction, with an uncertain destination.
Roland Hermann, legal counsel of Caritas Vienna, said the family arrived in Austria along with the great wave of people fleeing during the past summer and fall, when Angela Merkel’s “we can do it” policy was still finding support in Austria, and the borders with the transit countries were opened. Why question it retroactively by upholding the Dublin Regulation? In this case it’s not applicable because it applies only in cases of “illegal entry,” says Hermann, who is negotiating another dozen similar cases.
Naser and Afsaneh’s family did not arrived “illegally” in Austria; they were transported on a bus by the authorities. They departed from Herat in Afghanistan with their children to Turkey. Then, they boarded a dinghy to Chios, Greece and then to Athens and Macedonia. From there, police transported them on trains and buses, from one country to another, until reaching Austria. “We also did it in Austria,” Hermann said. “I worked in Spielfeld, on the Slovenian border, with the Red Cross. We assisted the refugees and organized their transportation to Germany.” The two appeals against deportation have been rejected, and the appeal to the Supreme Court is still pending.
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