The sign announcing the Austrian village of Traiskirchen has been sprayed with graffiti. Twice. The first says, ‘Refugees welcome!’ But someone else has inserted the word ‘not’. This is the problem in Traiskirchen which is now home to some 4,800 asylum seekers. Austria – and the village itself – can’t make up its mind whether they are welcome or not.
According to some of our more vocal tabloids recently, asylum seekers are coming to Europe in leaking, crowded boats across the Mediterranean before magically appearing in Calais with a fervent desire to walk through the Channel Tunnel in order to live, illegally, in the UK and sponge off the state.
Whilst it is true that many people are risking life and limb to be trafficked on ill-equipped boats across the Med, thousands more are heading overland from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and many African nations.
If you come along the Balkan route up from Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary, then the first Western European nation you reach is Austria. Not that a journey is as well thought through as that. Most refugees are drifting on a tide of uncertainty, fleeing horror at the last possible moment, not knowing where they would end up.
Some 80,000 asylum seekers are expected to end up in Austria this year alone. That follows 28,000 last year and 17,000 in 2013. Asylum requests for Austria rose nearly 180 per cent in the first five months of 2015.
OUT OF THE HEAT
It is a fearsomely hot day in Traiskirchen, at least 37 degrees in the shade. But I’m walking in the sunshine around the six-foot perimeter brick wall of an asylum camp to avoid being spotted by its guards. It’s so hot that I feel as if I’m melting.
Traiskirchen lies at the heart of Austria’s grape-growing region, and is well-known for its robust red wines. On two sides of the camp, vineyards come down from the hills to the road. A few feet away, nearly 5,000 people are crammed into a former Army barracks that was intended to be used by no more than 1,000.
It’s been used to house refugees for decades: first from Hungary and Czechoslovakia and now from across the globe, though the emphasis is without doubt on war-torn Syria and Iraq.
The day that I’m there, 86 people have been delivered by traffickers to a motorway outside Vienna. They are waiting to get into Traiskirchen. A woman cradling a small child sits on the pavement looking utterly traumatised.
Mohammed, a perfumiere from Aleppo in Syria, is camping in the grounds of the former Army base. I talk to him through the bars of the perimeter fence. He, his wife, and three small children have been living in two small tents up against the fence for three weeks.
They fled Aleppo – which is currently disputed between Syrian government troops and ISIS forces – when their home, business and cars were all bombed.
‘I came because there are police here and you can speak freely,’ he says. They paid more than £3,000 to be trafficked across Europe through Turkey, Macedonia and Serbia and they are bitter about the conditions they find themselves in. ‘There are too many people here,’ says Mohammed. ‘I can’t get a room inside. Syrians are the least important people here. What can I do?’
Traiskirchen makes the news every day in the Austrian media as the numbers increase [as of three weeks ago, the camp stopped accepting new arrivals]. A TV crew hovers outside the front gate filming and people drive by slowly in cars taking photographs on their phones. This is the worst kind of poverty porn.
But according to Mary, a 21 year old student who works as a waitress in a vineyard wine bar in the village, the views of the villagers have been ‘misreported’.
‘The people who are here are very poor,’ she says. ‘It doesn’t matter if they are here because they want a better life or have had threats against their lives. They are poor. They have to sleep outside and have no food.’
Not everyone has Mary’s empathy. Recent polls have put the anti-immigration Freedom party in Austria on 29 per cent, ahead of the ruling Social Democratic party on 23 per cent. A separate Gallup poll on voters’ main concerns ahead of the October elections put ‘better security’ top, ahead of ‘foreigner problems’ and ‘asylum’.
RICH AND POOR
Back at Traiskirchen, Ahmed says that he receives no food at the camp, but that instead local people from the village drop food by each day.
‘The government wants to show that it’s an overwhelming problem, a mass influx of people,’ says Christoph Riedl, CEO of the NGO Diakonie Fluchtingsdienst, which works with asylum seekers. ‘This is nonsense. Austria is a rich country and we can solve this problem.’
The conditions at Traiskirchen are also condemned by Dr Jutta Henner, Director of the Bible Society in Austria, one of the leading charities working with refugees both inside the centre and around the country.
‘It is really shocking to see people in tents at Traiskirchen,’ she says. ‘It is a difficult political issue, because the question is if 80,000 come this year and it continues next year, there is a real challenge of how we integrate people into a rich country. But to keep people in poor conditions just to show that they shouldn’t come here is to put suffering on the shoulders of poor people. I feel ashamed.’