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IMMIGRATION

Tents for asylum seekers stir debate in Austria

The white tents that Austria is using to house asylum seekers in a handful of towns have drawn rebuke from refugees' defenders and critics alike, while stirring memories of the 2015 migrant crisis.

Tents for asylum seekers stir debate in Austria
A child walks past tents inside the new refugee camp of Kara Tepe in Mytilene, on Lesbos, on March 29, 2021. - Similar tents are being set up in Austria. (Photo by ARIS MESSINIS / AFP)

Arrivals in the Alpine EU nation are increasing — but unlike seven years ago, it’s due in part to stricter border controls implemented by the conservative-led government.

Now that federal shelters are full, authorities have erected 40 tents, each housing up to eight people, at three points near Austria’s border with Germany and two others near Slovenia. That move has sparked fear, political positioning and accusations of inhumane treatment.

Tens of thousands of people sought asylum in Austria, a country of nine million, in 2015 with images like packed train stations leading to a surge in popularity of anti-immigration politicians.

READ ALSO: Why is Austria resorting to tent accommodation for asylum seekers?

At present, Austria has tripled capacity this year to host 8,000 people in government housing but all beds have been taken, authorities noted, making it necessary to set up tents.

“These are short-time emergency measures to increase our capacities on a day-to-day basis,” Thomas Fussenegger, a spokesman for the federal agency in charge, told AFP.

‘Inhumane’

According to authorities, hundreds of people have been intercepted daily in recent weeks after crossing into Austria.

Even though most continue on to nations further west, those who arrive must apply for asylum to avoid being expelled. The government has also stepped up border controls — which has increased the official tally of arrivals.

Between January and September, more than 70,000 people applied for asylum in Austria compared to some 40,000 people for all of 2021. In 2015, almost 90,000 people applied for asylum, according to ministry statistics.

In addition, Austria is supporting tens of thousands of Ukrainians who have fled the war in their home country. Under a special arrangement, they do not need to apply for asylum.

Like in previous years, those applying in Austria are mainly from conflict-torn Syria and Afghanistan, but Indians, Tunisians and other nationals have arrived as well.

European Union member states have blamed Serbia’s visa-waiver policy for attracting a broader group of migrants and serving as a springboard to enter the bloc.

READ ALSO: IN NUMBERS: Who are the asylum seekers trying to settle in Austria?

In early October, Austria’s conservative chancellor, Karl Nehammer, met Hungary’s nationalist prime minister Viktor Orban and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic to discuss working together more closely to stop the flow of migrants.

The appearance of the tents since mid-October has provoked strong, mostly critical reactions in Austria.

Prominent refugee support groups published an open letter to the government last week urging authorities to work together better on asylum seeker housing. “Refugees in Austria are having to live in tents again. Nobody wants that and this inhumane accommodation is absolutely avoidable,” they said.

A 19-year-old from Syria, Khaled, told Die Presse daily in the small town of Sankt Georgen im Attergau in western Austria: “It is cold at night… We are freezing here.”

Far-right politics

In Sankt Georgen im Attergau, 17 tents have not exactly been welcomed.

The conservative mayor, Aigner Ferdinand, echoed the refugee defence groups, objecting to the tents because they were “inhumane… especially at this time of year”, with winter on its way.

But he also noted the “fear” expressed by some locals at seeing groups of young men arriving.

READ ALSO: Is Austria’s Freedom Party a ‘far-right’ party?

These words sound similar notes as the debates in recent years in Germany after the arrival of nearly a million Syrians fleeing the war as well as Afghans or Iraqis.

The opposition far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) wants the country to stop accepting asylum seekers altogether.

“You have knowingly led our country into the same kind of disaster that we saw in 2015 and that will only get worse,” FPOe leader Herbert Kickl argued.

READ ALSO: What measures against foreigners is Austria’s far-right trying to take?

While the party is currently weakened, it held power from 2017 to 2019, in tandem with the conservatives of the young chancellor Sebastian Kurz, in the wake of the migration crisis

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IMMIGRATION

What is Vienna’s MA 35 doing to offer better service for immigrants in Austria?

The city of Vienna now has several new appointment slots for a 'first information meeting' for those wanting to apply for Austrian citizenship. Here's what you need to know.

What is Vienna's MA 35 doing to offer better service for immigrants in Austria?

The office for immigration and citizenship in Vienna, MA 35, is known for long waiting periods, delays and even mistakes being made in applications. It has recently received renewed criticisms as new appointments for Austrian citizenship were not open until mid-2023.

Things got even worse, and applicants now have to wait until October 2023 to get the first appointment. Only after this meeting will they receive another date (sometimes also a year later) to submit the documents asked. 

READ ALSO: ‘Insensitive and inefficient’: Your verdict on Vienna’s immigration office MA 35

Green politician Aygül Berivan Aslan said the reform of MA 35 had “failed”. She said she welcomed the SPÖ’s push towards simplifying access to citizenship but felt that “theory and practice do not match”. Speaking in the Viennese parliament, she introduced a motion for a six-month evaluation of the office.

Aslan also proposed that in the case of delays of more than six months, citizenship costs should be waived for applicants. 

Stadt Wien service screenshot

How bad is the situation?

Not only do people have to wait months for a first talk and then months to submit documents, but once their part is done, the wait is not over. There are currently 3,800 procedures pending for more than half a year in the MA 35, Deputy Mayor and City Councillor for Integration Christoph Wiederkehr (NEOS) said.

He justified delays saying that the number of applications had risen by around 30 percent his year in Vienna – only last month, there were 600 appointments booked. 

“The sharp increase can be explained by the eligibility of refugees from 2015 to apply for citizenship as well as by uncertainties caused by the war in Ukraine”, he said.

READ ALSO: ‘Bring everything you have’: Key tips for dealing with Vienna’s immigration office MA 35

He added that the goal would need to be “simplifying the procedures nationwide”. However, Wiederkehr also said there were reforms still being implemented in the MA 35.

Wiederkehr said: “On the part of the city, there are ongoing staff increases at MA 35. The training of the employees is so complex that it takes about a year.” 

“In addition to the increase in staff, there was an analysis to optimise some work processes, as well as intensive training. Digitalisation is also being accelerated”, he added.

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