Asylum Lock-Up

Fekter’s new policy turns its back on a tradition of rights

With her new policy, Interior Minster Maria Fekter turns the tables on refugees in Austria | Photo: APA-OTS/DeSt

Austria’s Interior Minister Maria Fekter wants to put all new asylum seekers into custody – an act that has puzzled many, as it goes against the principles of the Austrian Constitution, not to mention the UN Charter of Human Rights or the Geneva Convention. Her plans have stirred up intense controversy, not just on the Left, but also among most political parties and part of the population.

Faced with a sharp rise in key crime rates and a significant increase in applications for refuge over the past 18 months, Fekter of the center right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) proposed a new policy to the Austrian asylum law that tightens the country’s requirements for granting shelter to refugees.

We need “immediate decision-making,” Fekter said in June, “protection for the persecuted, fight against abuse, systematic deportation, and a residence permit in accordance with Austria’s interests,” – an enumeration of the elements of a five-point program for dealing with the wave of new arrivals presented in the Ministry’s recent amendment to the Foreigners’ Law.

Fekter’s critics are skeptical of the Interior Minister’s motives.

“She doesn’t want integration,” said Mag. Alev Korun, a Member of Parliament and Green Party Spokesperson for Integration, Migration and Human Rights. Korun, an Austrian citizen, was born in Turkey and came to Austria when she was 19 years old. “That’s why she plans to barrack them.”

Contributing to the current debate is the lack of reliable statistics about the incidence of crime. “Fekter only mentions the statistics of complaints against refugees,” Korun said. “But even then, only 4% of all valid complaints concern asylum seekers.”

The public interest, as addressed in Fekter’s plans, can be summed up in her two-stage plan for treating those seeking refuge within the borders of the country.

During the first phase of the process, every asylum seeker would be required to spend a minimum of five working days in an intake center where they would undergo extensive questioning, until the Ministry was able to verify their identity and background. The Ministry would have the right to deny asylum to any refugee for whom another EU member country is already responsible – as stipulated by the Dublin Convention of 1990 – or who does not meet a prescribed set of expectations. Denial would also be likely if the asylum seeker had entered a safe third country before arriving to Austria.

According to the Austrian Integration Fund, asylum was granted to nearly a third of all refugees to Austria in 2008, however, with the percentage dropping slightly in 2009 due to an increase in applications. The remaining two thirds of all asylum seekers have been denied shelter in Austria and will be, or have already been deported.

It is the potentially unsuccessful applicants that are addressed in the second stage of Fekter’s new policy.

Throughout the evaluation process, which may take up to six weeks, refugees are expected to remain in the center. “But not forced,” Fekter insisted. If they leave the building, asylum seekers’ presence in the country becomes illegal, and they could be picked up by the police at any time.

Currently, there are three main intake centers (Erstaufnahmestellen) in the country, located in Traiskirchen (NÖ), Thalham (OÖ) and Schwechat (W), all of them serving as a place for Ministry representatives to review and assess applications.

In December 2009, Fekter presented the proposal for the fourth center in Eberau, Burgenland. The reason…?  “Limited space” in the existing centers. On Jan. 28, in a joint statement with Lower Austrian governor Erwin Pröll (ÖVP), the Ministry announced that the number at Traiskirchen would be decreased to 480 in April, well below the designed capacity of 700, in an effort “to reduce the burden on the intake center Traiskirchen.”

With crime rates allegedly rising among immigrants, Fekter seemed a step closer to the realization of her plans. All that remained was discussion with the other political parties and, as it turned out, with the outraged residents.

In Burgenland, the Social Democratic (SPÖ) governor Hans Niessl, with an election around the corner, attacked Fekter for the planned center, bringing a temporary halt of the project at year end. After several days of discussion, an agreement was reached to hold a referendum in Eberau, Feb. 21. Fekter promised to honor the result.

Voter turnout was unusually high – a full 81.61% of those registered. The result: 90.14% against the new center.

On some level, Fekter must have been startled by the results. After all, restricting asylum is usually good politics for the right.

“There must not be anybody to the right of us (politically!),” former ÖVP-Interior Minister Ernst Strasser said in 2003. He was the first People’s Party representative to head the Interior Ministry since the 1970s. Under the SPÖ, the number of applications increased steadily, resulting in a high of 39,354 applications in 2002. In the recent years, however, rates have fallen as a result of stricter regulations. In 2008, the Ministry reported 12,841 applications, about a thousand more than the figure in 2007, but still far from the peak in 2002.

Austria has a long tradition of helping foreigners in trouble: in the long years of the Cold War and later when tensions erupted again in the former Yugoslavia, Austria continued to reach out the hand of legal protection to nearly two million refugees. But this is not only tradition; it is a value firmly established in the Austrian Constitution, where approving “measures for the temporary care of foreigners in need of protection” is among the most important priorities.

Thus, by closing the door to many of those seeking asylum, Interior Minister Maria Fekter is turning her back on a long established principle and deviating from the deeply held moral  values of the nation.

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