Ministers pay surprise visit to refugee camp

The severely overcrowded refugee camp in Traiskirchen, Lower Austria, received a surprise visit by Austrian President Heinz Fischer, Chancellor Werner Faymann, Vice Chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner and Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner on Wednesday.

Ministers pay surprise visit to refugee camp
Austrian President Heinz Fischer meeting refugees. Photo: Bundespräsident Dr. Heinz Fischer/Facebook

Last week Amnesty International said conditions at the camp are a “disgraceful” violation of human rights.

“We are continually informed about the situation in Traiskirchen, but it was important to me to be able to see the situation myself”, Faymann told media after the visit – which was held behind closed doors, with no reporters present.

He added that conditions at the camp are “unacceptable” and appealed to Austria’s states “to provide decent accommodation as soon as possible so that conditions like those at Traiskirchen are a thing of the past”.

On Tuesday Austria’s coalition government reached agreement on new powers for the federal government so that it can allocate asylum seekers to particular regions of the country, even if local councils are opposed.

“Every state that does not meet its quota, is responsible for that fact that refugees are sleeping on the street, in tents or in buses. The states must work closely with the federal government to get this situation under control,” Faymann said. He also called for a common EU policy on refugees and fair refugee quotas for all European countries.

President Fischer said that the visit to Traiskirchen had been his idea as he felt it was important for ministers to get a personal impression of what was going on. He said it was an “issue of human dignity” and that it was obvious that people living in the camp “don’t have it easy”.

He thanked “everyone in Austria who has been prepared to help refugees”. He said it was “high time” that the constitution was changed to allow the federal government to allocate refugees to local authorities throughout Austria, but said it was a shame the new law only comes into force on October 1st, and not before.

Many people from Vienna and surrounding areas have been driving to Traiskirchen to personally drop off donations of tents, food, clothing and sanitary supplies for refugees – although there has been some criticism that many such donations are going to waste as they are not what is needed.

The Traiskirchen centre is currently run by a private for-profit business on contract from the Interior Ministry.

The Greens' leader Eva Glawischnig recently called for professional and experienced charities to be put in charge of running Traiskirchen instead, arguing that conditions would then be better.


‘Discrimination’: Austria’s benefit cuts for immigrants ‘go against free movement’

Benefit cuts imposed by Austria on immigrants whose children live in their country of origin contradict EU law becasue they constitute "discrimination on the ground of nationality", a legal adviser at the bloc's top court said on Thursday.

A picture of the sign and logo of the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg
A picture of the sign and logo of the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg on January 13, 2020. (Photo by JOHN THYS / AFP)

The opinion is the latest legal hitch to befall a series of measures — imposed by a previous government that included the far-right — which sought to restrict benefit payments to foreigners.

Richard de la Tour, advocate general of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), said the cuts to child benefits constituted “an infringement of the right of free movement conferred on EU citizens”.

The specific case relates to reforms that came into effect in 2019 which indexed child benefits according to where the recipient’s children live.

This meant reduced payments for tens of thousands of eastern Europeans who work in Austria — notably in the care sector — but whose children remain in their countries of origin.

The advocate general’s advice is not binding on the court but it is seen as influential.

De la Tour found that the cuts were “indirect discrimination on the ground of nationality which is permissible only if it is objectively justified”, and that Austria had failed to do so.

They contravened the principle that “if a migrant worker pays social contributions and taxes in a member state, he or she must be able to benefit from the same allowances as nationals of that state”, he added.

In 2020 the European Commission, supported by six eastern member states, brought an action before the CJEU claiming Austria was “failing to fulfil its obligations”.

Former Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz had said he hoped the cuts would save 114 million euros ($130 million) a year but in 2019 they recouped 62 million euros.

The former coalition also introduced benefit cuts for immigrants who failed to reach a certain level of German, but those measures were subsequently overturned by the Austrian courts.

The government that introduced in the cuts was brought down in a corruption scandal in May 2019.

It included the centre-right Austrian People’s Party (OeVP), which is still the senior partner in the current government.

However their current coalition partners, the Greens, opposed the benefit cuts at the time.