Asylum Seekers The Hills Are Very Alive

Austria has seen its Alpine idyll redefined by the surge in refugees this year. The country is hosting a conference next week that aims to reduce the flow of economic migrants from the western Balkans.
The refugee center in Traiskirchen is overloaded at the moment, withe many refugees living in tents.

Traiskirchen, a small town some 20 kilometers south of the Austrian capital Vienna, is blessed with chocolate-box scenery of luscious green vineyards and pretty villages that attract tourists from all over the world.

But this bucolic landscape is changing. As the wave of migrants coming to Austria from the Balkans grows bigger, the Traiskirchen refugee camp where they are housed is changing the picture-perfect landscape.

According to one Austrian diplomat, some 80,000 people are expected to seek asylum in Austria this year, more than double last year's 30,000. Most are brought over by people smugglers who think little of their safety, or for their prospects once they arrive.

In Traiskirchen, some 4,000 asylum seekers crowd together, many sleeping on the floor. Hygiene is poor, doctors can’t cope, and there are children and young people without their parents facing a precarious future.

Aid organizations say the chaotic conditions in the camp are part of a wider failing by Austrian authorities to deal with the issue.

"Traiskirchen is the central symptom of Austria’s far-reaching structural failure in dealing with asylum seekers,” said Heinz Patzelt, general secretary of Amnesty International in Austria.

His colleague Daniela Pichler, head of communications and campaigning at Amnesty Austria, said: “When we visited it, some 1,500 people in Traiskirchen had to sleep out in the open, not including those who have to spend the nights outside the site. It’s an untenable situation.”

The situation has eased a little in recent days. Over the weekend, some 500 asylum seekers were taken to other hostels, but there is still no wide-ranging solution.

Tent cities, housing hundreds and sometimes thousands of refugees, have sprung up all over Austria. The government has the power to make cities and regional states house refugees until their case is dealt with. The problem now is that the numbers of people arriving has grown so large that the system cannot keep up.

The resulting chaos has led to a rise in support for the far-right Freedom Party. Matteo Renzi, Italian prime minister

According to official figures, the government made just under 17,500 rulings on whether to grant asylum in the first six months of this year — almost as many as the 18,000 in the whole of last year. But the wheels of bureaucracy still turn too slowly.

Günther Kräuter, a member of the Austrian Ombudsman Board, which monitors Austria’s public administration, estimates that it takes some eight months to process asylum applications: A pace that is too slow for the current flow of arrivals.

The resulting chaos has led in turn to a rise in support for the far-right Freedom Party of Austria. Recent voter surveys see it as the country’s most popular party with 29 percent. Its leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, on Monday announced he would seek a referendum on whether the central government should keep its right to force towns and regional governments to accept asylum seekers.

The influx of refugees is a pan-European problem. Balkan countries like Kosovo, Albania, Macedonia and Serbia are being overwhelmed with refugees from the fighting in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, while their own citizens head to the European Union.

As well as the humanitarian cost, this exodus has financial and social implications. People leaving a country take their skills, and much of their family's money, with them.

In Kosovo, which has only been a sovereign state since 2007, getting to Germany via Serbia, Hungary and Austria without the proper papers costs some €2,000, or $2,200, locals in the capital Pristina said. That’s an enormous sum for families in Kosovo, Macedonia, Albania or Bosnia, but they’re evidently willing to pay it to secure a supposedly better future for their children.

Hungary has taken drastic action to tackle the influx. Its right-wing prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has ordered a chain-link fence to be erected along the border with Serbia. Made with razor wire, it is due to be completed by the end of this month.

But experts doubt whether it will have much effect. “The refugees will simply take a detour via Croatia to get to Hungary, and then to Austria and Germany,” said one diplomat in Vienna.

The Streams of Refugees-01

Once the asylum seekers have made it to Austria, they have good chances of getting through to Germany. At present, the Austrian police only check three to four long-distance trains per day between Hungary and Germany, the Austrian interior ministry told Handelsblatt. They also check ten other trains that run from Austria to Germany.

A ministry spokesman said there weren’t any concrete numbers for how many asylum seekers are stopped en route between Vienna and the German city of Passau, another picture postcard town on the Austrian border that has also become a major migrant entry point.

Some 1,320 asylum seekers were stopped at Vienna’s main train station in July, four times the number in March. Austria’s police union has called for the reinstatement of border controls. Austria, Hungary and Germany are among the 26 member states that signed up to the Schengen Agreement that abolished passport and other controls at their common borders.

The Balkan countries and Austria hope that the Western Balkans conference on August 27 in Vienna, which will also be attended by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, will result in improved coordination to reduce immigration. One of the biggest sticking points is what happens to migrants from southeastern Europe, including Kosovo, who are rarely granted asylum in the European Union as their countries are generally deemed safe.

Diplomats preparing for the meeting said the Balkan nations urgently need support in the form of investment and closer cooperation to be able to tackle the crisis and build up societies where their citizens are happy to remain. It’s unlikely that a quick solution can be found. The region’s economy is so weak that the lure of the West will remain irresistible to many.

</a> The historic city of Traiskirchen provides a strange background for the refugee drama.


Greece, meanwhile, struggling to overcome its own recession and debt crisis, has been overwhelmed by the surge in the number of migrants reaching its shores — an estimated 140,000 so far this year. Between Friday and Sunday, the Greek coastguard picked up 1,728 refugees from the sea surrounding the eastern Aegean islands.

Some 10,000 migrants have reached the island of Lesbos in the last few weeks alone. And the Greek island of Kos saw chaotic scenes last week when police used fire extinguishers and batons against migrants after violence broke out in a sports stadium where hundreds of people, including young children, were waiting for immigration papers.

The situation has calmed down in recent days. A huge passenger ship docked in Kos last week to serve as a floating reception center and dormitory.

Greece has been criticized for failing to look after the refugees. The government said it doesn’t have enough money to cope. In fact, the E.U. has offered Greece €474 million in aid to cover the cost of housing and feeding migrants. But that cash can’t be claimed because the government has yet to nominate which state agency should manage the funds.

Italy estimates that some 103,000 asylum seekers have reached its shores so far this year. On Monday alone, 416 refugees reached the Sicilian port of Catania after surviving the perilous voyage across the Mediterranean.

E.U. money is gradually starting to flow. Italy will receive the largest amount of funds from the E.U. emergency plan: €558 million. Greece and Spain are also major beneficiaries. But the problem will take a long while to be resolved.

Video: Hungary has been criticized over its border fence plan to stop refugees.


Hans-Peter Siebenhaar is Handelsblatt's correspondent in Vienna. To contact the author: [email protected]