• Austria's news in English
Austria's refugee crisis: One year on
Donations being handed to Train of Hope to be distributed to refugees. Photo: Facebook/Train of Hope

Austria's refugee crisis: One year on

The Local · 24 Aug 2016, 12:26

Published: 24 Aug 2016 12:26 GMT+02:00

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

The incident was the first time the refugee crisis had really reached Austria’s doorstep and it put the country under the spotlight of international media. A few days later hundreds of frustrated refugees started walking from Budapest to Vienna and were met with a wave of solidarity in Austria, with some politicians even philosophising about a new welcoming culture.

Fast forward a year and Austria has seen significant changes in its refugee policy, eventually introducing one of Europe’s strictest asylum laws. The Local looks back at some of the key moments in a year that changed Austria.

Austrians show solidarity as numbers peak

As the refugee crisis reaches Austria’s doorstep in September, authorities begin ferrying refugees from the Hungarian border to Vienna and then onto Germany via Salzburg. In September around 170,000 refugees and migrants pass through this way. The initial compassionate management of people by Austrian police, railway bosses and politicians meant the country was seen in a favourable light internationally - particularly compared to the rough treatment refugees received from Hungarian authorities. At this peak time, many Austrians step up to the plate and donate in their thousands to help the new arrivals, with between 20,000 and 60,000 attending huge pro-refugee rallies in September and October.

Elections, elections

Although the ‘refugees welcome’ movement flourished in Austria in September, there were also many who did not feel as comfortable with the new arrivals. Fears over immigration lead to a surge in support for the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), who gain 15 percentage points in Upper Austria elections in September and then gain 31% of the vote in Vienna elections in October. Although not the only reason behind the growing support for the FPÖ, fears over migration numbers also contribute to the party coming ahead in the first presidential election in April 2016, before losing by just 0.6% in the run-off election in May.

Fences raised

After Hungary closed its border with Serbia and Croatia, the influx of refugees into Austria shifts from Nickelsdorf in Burgenland to Spielfeld in Styria towards the end of 2015. As thousands become trapped at Austria’s Slovenian border, Austria’s conservative Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner announces they will build a fence to help control the flow. The same day Austria’s leader - Social Democrat Werner Faymann - reiterates that fences “have no place” in Austria, a fight he is to lose. Divisions over whether to take a soft or hardline approach to the refugees begin to rise to the surface. By 2016 the fence in Slovenia is followed by a barrier at the Brenner border with Italy and preparations are made to raise a fence if necessary along the border with Hungary. 

Closure of the so-called West Balkan route

After Hungary closes its border, other countries in the West Balkans begin taking similar action. Refugees arriving in Greece try to make their way to central Europe through Macedonia but are turned back. In March 2016 Macedonia, Croatia and Slovenia all announce that they have shut their borders, a move supported by Austria but met with concern from EU officials. After the closure of that route and the strengthening of controls at Austria’s Italian border, the pressure of managing new arrivals is taken off Austria as refugees and migrants seek new routes into central Europe.

Tightening of asylum laws

Around that time, Austria declares it took on almost 90,000 asylum applications in 2015 - one of the highest figures per population in Europe. The government decide they cannot let the same thing happen again this year and announce an upper limit on asylum applications of 37,500. Just days after the far-right take the lead in the presidential polls in April, the Austrian parliament adopt one of Europe’s toughest asylum laws. The hotly-disputed bill allows the government to declare a "state of emergency" if the migrant numbers suddenly rise and reject most asylum-seekers directly at the border, including from war-torn countries like Syria. It is a move heavily criticised by the UN and asylum experts, who say Austria is flouting international human rights law.

Change of guards

Story continues below…

Spring also saw a significant change of guards in Austrian politics. Following the presidential election results in May - and growing discontent among his party - Austria’s social democratic leader Chancellor Werner Faymann steps down and is replaced by former railways boss Christian Kern who managed the transportation of refugees through Austria the previous year. Meanwhile, the police chief who managed the eastern Austrian refugee operations has become Defence Minister and the hardline Interior Minister swaps jobs with Lower Austria deputy governor, who quickly reveals he is just as tough on asylum seekers as his predecessor. Although the new Chancellor initially challenges the tough Interior Ministry on the ‘upper limit’ for asylum applications, months later Kern says he is ready to implement the controversial emergency measures by September.

Crisis dissipates in Austria

The number of asylum applications fell dramatically in Austria in 2016 compared to the previous year. The solidarity movement has also become less conspicuous. Politicians who helped to care for and manage the movement of refugees last year are now preparing to implement some of Europe’s toughest asylum measures. How might the country react today if another group of 71 refugees was found in the back of a van having suffocated? No doubt with sadness, but it would be unlikely to elicit the same powerful solidarity movement. At the other end of the scale, the earlier rise in anti-Muslim extremist protests this year has also somewhat calmed in the summer. Is there less fire in the belly of the anti-refugee movement now the crisis is less acute? The far-right’s presidential candidate Norbert Hofer is tipped to win the presidential election re-run in October but the question remains whether he'll be able to secure the same support without a refugee crisis to talk about.


For more news from Austria, join us on Facebook and Twitter.

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
Radioactive uranium rocks on display in Austrian schools
Uraninite crystals. Photo: Rob Lavinsky, iRocks.com/Wikimedia

Education officials have carried out urgent checks in schools across the country after one of the stones on display in a classroom turned out to be radioactive.

Austrian churches slam far-right's 'God' slogan
Campaign poster for Norbert Hofer. Photo: Paul Gillingwater

Austrian church officials have denounced far-right presidential candidate Norbert Hofer for "instrumentalising" God in a new slogan.

'Scary clown' pushes 14-year-old off his bike in Salzburg
Generic photo: Graeme Maclean/Flick

A 14-year-old boy in Salzburg has been injured after being pushed off his bike by an individual dressed as a scary clown.

Police puzzled by random stabbing of teenager in Vienna
Photo: Paul Gillingwater

A 15-year-old boy who was stabbed near his home in the Vienna district of Liesing on Friday morning by a complete stranger has spoken to the police.

'Sensational' 300-year-old Madonna found in Burgenland
The head of the statue was found beside the body. Photo: ORF

A 300-year-old statue of the Virgin Mary has been found hidden in a chapel next to a Catholic church in Loretto, Burgenland.

Baumgartner 'failed to mention Red Bull' before jumping to Earth
Felix Baumgartner. Photo: Red Bull Stratos

Felix Baumgartner has been accused of cheating his Red Bull sponsors after he failed to mention the energy drink just before he jumped to Earth.

Verdict on swimming pool rape case overturned
The Theresienbad swimming pool in Vienna. Photo: Wikimedia

An Iraqi refugee who was jailed after claiming it was a sexual emergency when he raped a boy in a swimming pool has had the sentence overturned.

Vienna Comic Con promises to be 'bigger and more galactic'
Cosplay star Yaya Han. Copyright: Yaya Han/Bryan Humphrey

Comic Con returns to the Austrian capital on November 19th-20th at the Messe Wien.

Three refugees arrested on drugs charges
Cannabis plants. Photo: J. Patrick Bedell/Wikimedia

A gang of three Afghani drug dealers has been busted in Vienna.

Hungarian woman crushed by snowcat piste machine
Snowcat machine. Photo: Melensdad/Wikimedia

A young Hungarian woman has died after being crushed by a snowcat piste machine on the Dobratsch mountain in Carinthia.

12 brilliant German words you won't find in English
Sponsored Article
Last chance to vote absentee in the US elections
Five films which will change your mind about Austrian cinema
Those surprising Austrians!
100 years since the last emperor's death
Afghani family's new home in Austria
Der you learn Deutsch?
Delighted by the light
Beware these passport scams
Of course we skipped Oarsch
Foodies rejoice at the choice!
Travel & Tourism
10 years after her escape from captivity
Surviving the Brexit for British expats
Day 2 of the World Bodypainting Festival 2016
Is Islam hostile to Western society?
Bodypainting festival in southern Austria
Europe's ice cream capital
Best Austrian beauty spots
Travel & Tourism
Three days in Vienna as a tourist
How to make friends in Austria
jobs available