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.
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.
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
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.