Werner Wintersteiner: “Votivkirche: School of Democracy”

Deutschsprachige Version veröffentlicht in KLEINE ZEITUNG, Freitag, 25. Jänner 2013:

Votivkirche: School of Democracy

The probably most important event that took place last Sunday was not the referendum on the military service, but a gentle, hardly noticed gesture shown by the refugees in Votivkirche. The activists who have spent weeks braving the cold have set a unique act: When receiving the Ute-Bock special award and yet another one, the said thank you and passed the prize money on to Caritas in order that they would use it for the needy.
Thereby the refugees have once more made it clear that their struggle is not about charity or about an improvement solely of their own situation. They are pursuing the political goal of a humane and fair treatment of refugees and asylum seekers in Austria. The refugees in Votivkirche, a part of whom has been on hunger strike until recently, are first and foremost fighting for their dignity and for their political rights. In this respect they have pushed various demands: basic services (Grundversorgung) for all asylum seekers; the free choice of residence and access to public housing; access to the labor market, to educational institutions and to social insurance; and last but not least the recognition of economic motives as reasons for fleeing.
These demands are not immoderate. They contain fair conditions that Austrian human rights organisations have long been claiming and that the government has categorically rejected.

Why is that? Are refugees no human beings who deserve a condign treatment just as everybody else does? Why is it that the refugee protests are being hushed up by some and defamed by others? Maybe because they do not fit our picture of refugees as some poor supplicants that would let us prove our generosity once again.
The speciality, the uniqueness of these protests is that those affected, those dispossessed of their rights, the asylum seekers themselves are taking over. Those who are generally not the ones (supposed) to speak are raising their voice publicly and share their opinion. They act like citizens. That is what obviously annoys the critics.
But in this way Votivkirche has turned into a school of democracy: Those whose rights nobody wants to recognize are now themselves recognizing their rights. Those who are not granted any rights are now raising their voice. By doing so, they highlight the gaps in Austria’s democracy and work on closing them. We should say thank you to the hunger strikers – on behalf of democracy!

Werner Wintersteiner, University of Celovec/Klagenfurt