In terms of asylum applications, Austria is one of the leading states in the EU. According to the Austrian Ministry of the Interior, 65,589 people applied for asylum between January and November 2015. In 2014, 28,027 applied; in 2013 – 17,503; in 2003 – 23,359; and in 1999 – 20,219.
The country planned to accept about 95 thousand refugees by the end of the year. In addition, it serves as an important transit point for those headed through Hungary to Germany and Sweden.
Austria’s “open door” policy was a source of pride for the country for a long time. Officials and public activists invariably emphasised that this position could be explained on at least two grounds: first, the successful integration of nearly two million people between the end of WWII and the present day; and second, humanistic ideals.
Public opinion has also been rather benevolent. A survey conducted by Unique Research for the paper Heute in autumn 2014 indicated that although 45% of respondents were opposed to placing new refugees in the country, more than half of respondents (58%) were still prepared to help them in their search for shelter.
“It is difficult to do everything right in such a complicated situation… Of course, we have had difficult, tragic moments, but Austria’s position is such that we are willing to help refugees arriving here from a conflict zone,” President Heinz Fischer said in late December last year (quoted by Der Standard). “I cannot tell those who do not make it into this number (quota – Ed.), ‘Sorry, you’re out of luck,’” he stressed.
Refugees are not being resettled evenly throughout Austria but live compactly in just a few cities and towns, primarily Vienna, Salzburg and Linz.
The main refugee camp is in Traiskirchen, near Vienna. Its original buildings were built in the early 20th century and they were first used for refugees in 1956 when there was a significant influx of Hungarians into Austria. In July 2015 the camp exceeded capacity and plans to build additional places were discussed, but they were not realised due to resistance raised by the population and some political parties.
In August the international non-governmental organization Amnesty International visited Traiskirchen for an inspection. In the final report, it noted inadequate medical and social services, difficult conditions for children and youth who fled to Austria alone, and a large number of homeless – around 1,500.
Das Boot ist voll
Refugees were the main political theme in Austria in the second half of 2015. In its shadow were held regional elections, where the far-right Freedom Party achieved significant successes. The ruling coalition, composed of the Social Democratic (SPÖ) and Austrian People’s (ÖVP) parties, long repelled the attacks of those who called for them to reject new refugees. “The boat is far from full,” Vienna mayor Michael Häupl (SPÖ) persuaded voters in a News.at interview prior to city elections. But even the leading political parties must now gradually retreat, agreeing to new restrictions. Moreover, the attitude of the public is no longer so welcoming.
In autumn 2015, the Austrian International Institute for Market and Social Research (IMAS) conducted a survey on attitudes towards the refugee problem. 69% of respondents were not happy with the situation; 64% supported restoring border controls; and 61% were in favour of a quota for admission into EU countries.
“Our goal is to substantially reduce illegal border crossings from the current number of 1.5 million persons. If external border protection works as it should, the next step must be the possibility for the legal, monitored and orderly entry of real refugees,’ said Chancellor Werner Faymann in an interview with the paper Österreich in late December. He considered it necessary to increase the number of deportations of those who are not actually refugees and strengthen border controls.
At the same time, there are such hard-liners in the ÖVP as Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner and Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz. Among the options proposed by party members are stricter asylum rules and even closing the borders. Thus, the ÖVP advocated building a fence along the border with Slovenia, but in the end, an agreement was only achieved with the SPÖ for the construction of a 4 kilometre fence in the vicinity of the city Spielfeld on both sides of the border.
On 17 January, in an interview with the paper Österreich, the prime minister announced that the country would temporarily suspend participation in the Schengen Agreement. “When the EU cannot control external borders… then each country must take on the responsibility to control its own state borders,” said Faymann.
This is how the turn towards a pragmatic policy came about in Austria. The next question is what Berlin and Brussels will do to in response.