Reportage. The actors were 200 trainee police officers, tasked to play out a wide range of possible behaviors. The commander of the intervention unit is illustrating the “Three Ds” strategy: dialogue, de-escalation, and, if nothing else works, durchgreifen—forceful intervention.

Austria holds surreal border exercise with fake refugees and two helicopters

It was announced by the Austrian Minister of the Interior, Herbert Kickl, but it seemed too absurd to imagine that it could take place in earnest: a scene of fake war against fake migrants. Yet it actually occurred, staged by the new Grenzschutztruppe, the border protection division called PUMA (with the slogan “Flexible and Fast”), which is set to become operational from September.

To see the show, we had to go to southern Styria, a pleasant area of ​​vineyards which is often compared to Tuscany, a Weinstrasse, or “wine road,” that meanders merrily along the border between Austria and Slovenia. This was the setting for the grim “Pro-border” spectacle set up on the eve of Austria taking up the EU presidency, which illustrates very well the role that the government intends to play vis-a-vis migrants.

A police shuttle bus brought us to the border, where the event was being set up, with hundreds of blue and green uniforms lined up on opposite sides. One shuddered to think of what could happen if they were not merely acting. Present were Kickl himself and Defense Minister Mario Kunasek, both from the far-right FPOe that controls all executive power. When the exercise began, we saw the fake refugees coming in along a fenced path. They seemed quiet at first, but then they begin to press forward to advance, shouting the slogan: ”Let us in!”

The actors were 200 trainee police officers, tasked to play out a wide range of possible behaviors. The commander of the intervention unit is illustrating the “Three Ds” strategy: dialogue, de-escalation, and, if nothing else works, durchgreifen—forceful intervention. Gradually, the troops of the police and army took up positions. Two helicopters equipped with all the modern technical marvels zoomed across the sky. There was even a Pandur tank that had been used in Kosovo, but it was here only for defensive purposes, i.e. to block the passage of people—so said the army captains who are offering anti-immigration support in the regions with Schengen borders, such as Styria, Burgenland, Tyrol, Carinthia and Salzburg.

To create just the right atmosphere, in addition to the pretend migrants, we are also made to hear the shouts of the real refugees who crossed the border at Spielfeld in 2015. Back then “thousands of foreigners invaded the streets and fields of Spielfeld without any control,” said Kickl at the press conference. “There was an impotency of the state that must not happen again. If a state cannot protect the border, it loses its credibility.”

Therefore, to regain the trust of the citizens and prevent further attacks on the borders, these are now being heavily armored with the PUMA shock troops, “an important signal for inside and outside the country.” They have been designed for the purpose of controlling large masses of people. It seems no importance is being given to the fact that almost no one has been crossing the borders of Austria for a long time, and the total number of people rejected at the Slovenian border this so far is just 20. Kickl and Kunaseck are not just dwelling on the past, but imagining future scenarios of new invasions through new Balkan routes via Albania, caused by every crisis imaginable.

In truth, the many dysfunctions that occurred in Spielfeld between 2015 and 2016 “were actually manufactured. That was also a performance, because they wanted to create the right conditions for the closing of the Balkan route,” as Petra Leschanz of the Border Crossing Spielfeld initiative, then a volunteer helping refugees (like a great part of the local population), explains to us.

Astrid Pinter of Omas Gegen Rechts (“Grandmothers against the Right”), a recently created group, is of the same opinion, as she recalls the arrival at the same border of refugees from the former Yugoslavia in 1991. “It was about a hundred thousand people, all recognized en masse as de facto refugees, and who were processed and integrated without major problems.”

That seems ages ago now. We were shown the identity check and registration process at the border, every step and detail part of a highly complex structure—which, as an official admits, has only been brought to completion now, when the large inflow of people has just ended. It sputtered out with the closing of the Balkan route, the great achievement Chancellor Kurz is boasting of.

As we find out by asking the border police, no one is allowed through the border anymore. Anyone who asks for asylum, even if they come from a country such as Syria, is sent back across the border, because they have already passed through other safe third countries where they could have asked for asylum. These are the Dublin rules applied in the most selfish way possible—the same policy line that Horst Seehofer wants to force on Angela Merkel, throwing the entire EU into crisis.

The police explained that now one can only enter Austria for family reunification purposes according to the UN Convention on Human Rights, but this is valid only for immediate family, parents and children. Unaccompanied minors under 14 are also among the few who will not be rejected.

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