» F.A.Q. – What’s the context? What can be done?

Deutschsprachige Version unter: http://refugeecampvienna.noblogs.org/faq


0. What happened so far?

The current self-organised protests first became visible in the media in November 2012, with the announcement of a protest march of refugee activists from Traiskirchen to Vienna. Once in Vienna, an open and public Refugee Protest Camp was set up in Sigmund Freud park, as has previously occurred in other european cities too. Towards mid-december, the asylum seekers sought refuge in the nearby Votiv Church. Soon thereafter they entered into hungerstrike. A few days later, just before the year ended, the camp was brutally evicted by police.
You can find a detailed ‘timeline’ of events here (in german and english): http://refugeecampvienna.noblogs.org/timeline/

1. How come these protests are happening in Austria right now?

Currently, the largest self-organised protests of asylum seekers seen in Europe in recent decades are taking place in Austria. These are not isolated incidents or ‘haphazard’ or indeed spontaneous uprisings. Already in mid-october 2012, demonstrations and a two-day rally with some camp-like features took place in Vienna, organised by Somali refugees in front of the parliament buildings on the Viennese Ringstrasse. Still some months prior to this, there had been protests around the ‘special institution’ [Sonderanstalt] on the Carintihian Saualm mountain, pointing to the catastrophic living conditions that refugees have to face in such ‘special’ accommodation in Austria, as well as the deplorable conditions in the reception centre in Traiskirchen, close to Vienna. Other concrete reasons for the protests in Austria include the precarious legal status of asylum seekers, shocking conditions in detention centres, random legal procedures around asylum cases and the deprivation of social rights: these are the realities faced people seeking asylum in Austria.
The summer of 2012 has indeed seen protests by asylum seekers across Europe – despite the fact that those hardly featured in Austrian mainstream media, they were widely recognised by refugees living here. In Germany for instance, a protest march to Berlin took place in September, lasting several weeks into the autumn. Refugee protests in various cities had prepared the ground for this march. In Berlin as well as in Budapest, Amsterdam and at the borders of the European Union there have been protests in front of national parliaments, as well as protest camps and occupations led by refugees, often supported by locals. At the european level, thus far no demands have been articulated and shared across this movement of refugee self-organisation and protest – not yet, since the conditions that mark the points of departure of these protests vary and produce singular forms of mobilization and contestation. Yet contacts and communication between activists in verious countries do exist. The various protests and forms of struggle that occur across European countries are indeed inspired by one another.

2. What do the asylum seekers want with their protest?

The asylum seekers in Vienna have articulated a set of demands. Those range from specific demands concerning the reception centre in Traiskirchen and its depressing Lagerconditions, to broader demands addressing higher political instances. Amongst the latter are demands for access to the labour market (the right to work) and the demand for legal residence status in Austria. On the level of EU policies, a central point of critique and contestation is the Dublin-II system, for the abolition of which the protesters are calling. Almost none of these demands are new: they’ve been put forward by known experts in NGOs, unions and also church organisations since many years. The urgent demand for asylum seekers’ right to work, for instance, is one echoed by many civil society organisations and experts, indeed there is little controversy around it. Yet the politicians in power have ignored this fact thus far. What’s new now is the fact that refugees, as those immediately concerned by the policies in question, have now taken it upon themselves to put forward these demands themselves. They directly address the responsible politicians and institutions, making their voices heard through the ongoing protests.
Link: http://refugeecampvienna.noblogs.org/demands/

3. Who is organising the current protests?

Given the inhumane situation in the reception centre in Traiskirchen and in view of other protest in neighbouring countries, people seeking asylum have decided to proceed to self-organise. Migrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Algeria and Marocco (amongst other countries: it’s hard to keep an updated list since more migrants join daily) are taking part in the protest. This process is aided by supporters who have a secure residence status in Austria.
The concerned asylum seekers stand at the centre of the protests, dwelling on the name ‘refugees’ in denominating themselves. The refugee activists involved come from many different countries, speaking various languages and have each their specific reasons for fleeing their countries for Europe. Amongst them are activists who have been in Austria for several years but for various reasons still haven’t obtained a residence permit, and who – just like the activists that only arrived in Austria recently – can no longer tolerate the incertainty and the demeaning situations in state accommodation centres. Many of them are very young, but some of them are also of older generations. Socially speaking too, the refugee activists are far from being a homogeneous group: their religious, political, economic and familial backgrounds vary.
This also applies to their local supporters, since many of them too are migrants and have various occupations and passions, being union activists, doctors, nurses, members of political parties, teachers, students, as well as local residents, shopkeepers and restaurant workers. Many of them have taken active part in active in refugee and migrant struggles before, but for another part of supporters this is a first engagement with such solidarious struggle.
As events keep unfolding, the protests have been joined by refugees from other parts of Austria as well as by people from neighbouring countries. The same applies for supporters. This is hardly a reason for surprise or even concern – rather it points to the european and transnational dimensions of this movement and the problems it is adressing.

4. Why are the supporters relatively invisible?

Even if the media give the impression that there is only a small margin of supporters, there are indeed many people supporting this protest in many different ways. On site, around the church and camp, many people engage in mutual aid and sharing on a daily basis: a caring or ‘reproductive’ labour that, as in the home and society, tends to be underrepresented or misrepresented. This support is, however, crucial as it sustains the entire infrastructure and affective and caring environment that this protest has generated. It is a labour shared by people of all kinds of backgrounds, skin colors, religions and so on. Come by and see this process by yourself.
A more visible part of supporters consists of well known public personas, such as the OEGB-union president Erich Foglar, writer Franzobel, actress Ursula Strauss or comedian Josef Hader, who declared their support with the mobilisations early on. Also famous European intellectuals such as Etienne Balibar, Antonio Negri have spoken in solidarity.
See also: https://refugeecampvienna.noblogs.org/support/petition/

More crucial however are the many supporters who share the experience of migration and asylum procedures, wanting to support the self-expression and self-determination of persons in situations like theirs. The protesting refugees are quite capable of deciding for themselves, protecting themselves and taking care of themselves: paternalism, whether it comes from the Church, Caritas, media, politics or individual supporters, tends to block the free and fruitful unfolding of discussions, and disagreements, and the estalishment of trust and care and decisions by all involved in the protest. The refugees are best place to assess and represent their situation themselves, this is why the RefugeeProtestCamp Vienna always encourages direct talks, statements and demands as coming from those immediately concerned, unlike the representational strategies of NGOs or the Church.
See for instance: http://refugeecampvienna.noblogs.org/post/category/refugees-speak-up/

5. Why did these asylum seekers choose the (Votiv) church as space of refuge?

There are several reasons for this. For one, this church is situated right by the Freud Park where the protest camp stood for weeks. Secondly, there is a history of church engagement in issues around asylum, and in Austria too there have been many initiatives and engaged individuals emerging from the Church and drawing attention to the situations and needs of refugees, echoing their demands in various ways. We remember the priest Josef Friedl in particular, who secretly put up the young Arigona Z. in order to protect her from deportation as ordered by the interior ministry, or the superintendant Luise Mueller who proclaimed church asylum for Lamin J. from Gambia, in order to prevent his deportation. Moreover, many local parished have stood as sites of resistance against deportation of individuals close to them. It’s this kind of practical solidarity and kind love that refugees hoped for when taking the step to enter into the protection of the Votiv church. Since then they have a majority of church representatives and believers on their side, be they catholic or protestant, who recognize and echo the sincerity and urgency of the protester’s demands – this does not include the entire church community, but a large part of it.
Examples of such solidarity can be found in other countries too, across Europe and beyond. In France and in the neighbouring Switzerland for instance, there have been various church occupations undertaken by refugees and supporters. Apart from very recent and ongoing waves of such common action, we can point to such a protest in 2008 in Switzerland which similarly called for change concerning the inhumane conditions that asylum seekers have to tolerate. These kinds of protests have generally seen the support of local priests as well as active support from the entire church community.

See also:

6. What have these protests achieved so far?

Quite a lot! Being the largest self-organised protests in recent history, these mobilisations have considerably contributed to a shift in discourse concerning current politics and policies of asylum and migration. This discourse had previously been dominated by talk about “quota” and by technical concerns about the correct distribution of refugees amongst austrian provinces: a discourse that speaks of refugees as if they were some kind of recyclable waste that needs to be managed. In Austria as in some other countries, this dominant discourse denies refugees and migrants their humanity, dignity and voices. The protests we are seeing now have managed to shift this way of speaking about the problem, drawing attention to the underlying problems and realities that abstract words like ‘refugee’ or ‘migrant’ imply, and revindicating their rights to, and dreams of, a good life.
Beyond this general change of climate, which makes new ways of speaking, relating and imagining policies possible, there have been broad movements of solidarity across the austrian population (and beyond!). Many people signed the various solidarity statements, and the support of plenty of well known public figures from science, politics, unions, church, arts, culture and so forth has opened some channels for media to finally take on this issue.
Many of the concrete demands of the refugees are being increasingly echoed and examined in recent weeks: from scandalous translation services provided by a company of private detectives (!!) in the Trainskirchen camp, to the paradox and misery that the blocking of access to labour markets implies for refugees, amongst many others. These are demands that Caritas, NGOs and unions are putting forward since a long time, yet which had not made it into public attention before the current protests started – not to speak of making it into the minds and agendas of the politicians in charge. Concrete solutions to these problems are still lacking, but the first step towards their formulation has been taken – there’s no longer silence around this complex of urgent matters of human and social rights.

7. What was the role of the police thus far?

On the day before the protest march was to take off from the Traiskirchen state camp, the camp management announced that the presence of all inmates was required for a general control the next day. Incidentally, these checks were scheduled to start half an hour before the march was to start. This supposed ‘routine’ procedure, as the interior ministry has called it, indeed prevented the participation of many refugees in the march, and thus in exercising their right to protest. Especially women and children stayed in the camp, fearing the possible consequences of losing access to their accommodation and to the meagre support they are entitled to. This same worry also caused many refugees to return to the state camp as the protest march went on to central Vienna.
The protest march ended at Sigmund Freud Park, where a protest camp was set up in front of the Votiv church. Plain clothes officers have been in and around the camp, ‘surveying’ the activists. ID checks have occurred there on several occasions. Particularly since the protesters sought refuge in the church, police checks have increased, culminating in a sudden, violent and humiliating raid of the camp on the 28th of december. In the middle of that quiet night just after christmas, many dozens of police officers appeared to evict the camp: being woken up in the middle of the night, camp dwellers were given 5 minutes to clear the site and collect their belongings, only to be demeaningly photographed and filmed for identity determination. Over 20 persons were arrested that night, some put into detention, some had their identity cards removed, and the camp was demolished within a few hours. Charges were pressed against many.
The legal grounds upon which the police bases the raids and eviction is a law concerning camping, a very contentious application of camping regulations onto a situation that has widely been recognised as one of political protest. Public opinion widely questioned the application of a camping regulation to a formally registered political protest: this police manouevre is being investigated by the Ombudsman.

There have also been false allegations and conspiracies targeting specific activists and journalists, intending to discredit or criminalize them. Rumours of an ‘international organisation’ or of ‘professional activists from foreign countries’ are as far fetched as the accusations of ‘terrorism’ that have been put forward against a handful of animal rights activists in recent years in Austria. The police chief leading the camp eviction happens to be the one that was responsible for the animal rights causa, a criminalization campaign that has been widely discredited and seen all charges revoked.

Meanwhile, cities like Berlin or Amsterdam have been generous with providing heatable spaces to refugees – and the Berlin protest is confirmed to be able to stay. Many things that the city of Vienna could learn and take on!

See also: http://refugeecampvienna.noblogs.org/post/category/transnational/

8.What are the possible solutions within this ongoing conflict?

The german courses that have started in the Votiv church show just how simple it can be to meet the refugee’s wish to learn german properly – a wish that was left largely unfulfilled in the state camp. Similarly, professional and further education could easily be made accessible to them.
At the top of the list of demands we find the claim for the right to work. “We don’t want charity, we want to work and pay our taxes.” Nothing stands in the way of the interior ministry appointing a working group to investivate how refugee’s access to the labour market might be improved. There are many asylum seekers who would happily act as experts on this matter.
On the issue of freedom of choosing where to stay while an asylum procedure is legally ongoing, things appear even more blatantly simple. This would merely require a move on the part of the minister of the interior, to enable the freedom of refugees to choose to live in self-organised flats and homes of their choice.
In order to enable the refugees to be equal interlocutors in such discussions, their right to stay would have to be assured.
Beyond this, within a democratic society there must be space to question dehumanizing regulations such as that of Dublin II – whether in Vienna, Berlin, Paris, Brussels or the Votiv church.

9. So where have these other protests of asylum seekers taken place in recent months?

Some names of places: Amsterdam, Berlin, Budapest, Lesvos, Lille, Wels, Vienna, Wuerzburg… this is an incomplete list, though. Lille has seen over 80 refugees enter into hunger strike recently. If you’d like to get a bit of an overview of recent protests of asylum seekers and migrants, and of initiatives struggling for freedom of movement in the face of unjust european asylum policies, take a look at the TransborderMap that was just published. All these movements, struggles and initiatives refer to one another openly and try to operate with as much transparency and visibility as possible.
See also: http://refugeecampvienna.noblogs.org/post/category/transnational/

Further Links:

10. How can I help?!

In many ways! It’s crucial that people spread the word, so the given situation can be discussed and questioned. Tell your friends, co-workers and family about it. Spread this information via social media and tell people that they can sign the solidarity petition: http://refugeecampvienna.noblogs.org/support/petition/

There’s also a need for financial resources in a big mobilization like this. Donations are important and very welcome! See: http://refugeecampvienna.noblogs.org/donate/

If you want to provide practical support on site, take a look at this page to get an idea of the many possible things you could do: http://refugeecampvienna.noblogs.org/support/direct-support/