Despite Austrian efforts to curb the admission of East Bloc economic refugees, its once-efficient refugee housing system has begun to break down, leaving hundreds to sleep crammed in church pews and even leading to refugee suicides.
Austria admitted 6,400 refugees last year. In this year’s first nine months it admitted 13,500. Published reports say this year’s $40-million budget already is exhausted.
Thousands are being simply told to go home. Those who reject this advice disappear into the burgeoning black market for illegal workers or wait in camps.
For most, it is a grim wait. The Evangelical Church across the road from Austria’s main refugee camp Traiskirchen, 20 miles south of Vienna, shelters around 70 such cases each night.
Recently the church closed for a time because of too much demand and too little money. It has since reopened, but no one knows for how long.
Wooden Pews Serve as Beds
Luggage and grimy packs litter the back wall of the tiny church. Women and children who haven’t washed in a week sleep in the poorly heated hall on wooden pews.
Pastor Christine Hubka said the Austrian Interior Ministry opened a new waiting hall on the same day the church ceased getting state help to feed refugees and had to close.
Austria has been a traditional haven for asylum seekers from East Europe. But a measure of East Bloc liberalization leaves would-be refugees running out of good reasons to leave their country. Now many are seen as emigrants rather than refugees.
They arrive in Traiskirchen with dreams that meet an increasingly bitter reality--no room, no jobs and very little hope of being allowed to stay.
“We are not wanted,” said one bitter Pole.
Hungarians, Poles Favored
Yet applicants from Poland and Hungary are specially favored, although one interior ministry official said only about 1% of applications are approved.
In January Austria lifted a longstanding visa requirement for Poles. It recently cut the waiting time for refugee application from three weeks to three days for Polish and Hungarian applicants. These changes helped spur a renewed flood of economic refugees.
Emigrating Soviet Jews transiting Austria are housed elsewhere in heavily guarded compounds to avoid possible terrorist attack.
Traiskirchen, a former Nazi armory and training center, was once a clean, safe harbor for those leaving the East Bloc. Now the camp, designed to hold around 800, overflows with more than 1,500. Its buildings have deteriorated in spite of constant renovation attempts.
Some of the camp’s refugees become so desperate without work permits and an average $20 a week allowance that they turn to crime. Police recently raided Traiskirchen and found a large cache of weapons and a Romanian refugee crime ring. Police say theft and burglary in the adjacent town is on the rise.
Wages of $2 an Hour
Outside the gloomy camp walls, dozens of refugees wait--often with all their belongings--for someone to come along offering work. Usually this is at extremely low wages. Refugees get $2 an hour for work they do on the camp grounds.
“Everything in Hungary is expensive and the wages are low,” said a Hungarian geography teacher at Traiskirchen explaining why he left. A refugee case officer said most Hungarians can freely travel abroad on external passports.
Austria currently houses about 4,100 Hungarian refugees, about 4,000 Poles and some 900 Czechs and Romanians and about 500 black Africans and Iranian Jews.
Austria continues to complain that U.S. refugee quotas are too low.
Refugees, who dream of emigrating to the United States, Australia or Canada, wait up to 18 months for another country to admit them. Meanwhile they live in conditions worse than those they left behind. Some have been stranded much longer--the record is held by a Ugandan Asian who has spent 16 years trying to regain his British passport.