On 16 February 2,500 people, mainly refugees from all over Austria, immigrants living in Vienna, as well as Austrian supporters, attended a demonstration in Vienna organised jointly by asylum seekers and their supporters, including the Socialist Left Party (SLP, CWI in Austria). They were protesting against the restrictive racist asylum policies of the Austrian state. If the traditional Left and Left unionists had supported and attended the demonstration it could have been even bigger.
This protest movement started in late November, last year, with a demonstration of asylum seekers, many of them from Pakistan, marching dozens of kilometres from a camp in Traiskirchen, Lower Austria, to Vienna. The fact that asylum seekers dared to march is a new development in Austria and a big step forward for the movement against deportation and the right of asylum seekers to remain, which has been simmering for the last few years. In contrast to only local communities defending refugees, this time it was the refugees themselves that spoke out.
One of their central demands is the right to be able to work legally. The lack of this right means that asylum seekers are forced into dependence on the state or NGOs or had to work illegally. This reality was instrumental in cutting across the racist arguments of the far right FPÖ party, which blames asylum seekers for depending on state money. The list of demands by the refugees include:
1. Grundversorgung (basic support) for all asylum seekers, as long as they reside in Austria, irrespective of their legal status
2. Free choice of their location of residence in Austria, and access to public housing for all asylum seekers residing in Austria – no transfers against the wishes of the people concerned
3. Access to employment, educational institutions and social security for all migrants residing in Austria
4. Stop all deportations to Hungary – stop all deportations associated with the Dublin Regulation 2
5. Establishment of an independent authority for substantive review and appeal of all negative replies to asylum applications
6. Recognition of socio-economic motives in addition to the previously recognized reasons for people becoming refugees
After the 24 November demonstration, a protest camp was set up in a park near a Vienna church (Votivpark/Votivkirche). Refugees and their supporters have organised repeated demonstrations from the protest camp. The government quickly tried to break up the demonstrations by moving many the protesting asylum seekers to other camps in Austria, presenting this action as an improvement of care for asylum seekers. When deep winter set in, the asylum seekers moved to a nearby church. During the Christmas holidays, the police used the fact that most supporters were not at the protest camp to clear out the camp in front of the church. This made organising support more difficult.
Inside the church, the Catholic hierarchy, through their NGO ’Caritas’, tried to control the asylum seekers, and probably cooperated with the government. A list was issued as a basis for negotiations with the government. Only a limited number of asylum seekers were included on the list that were supposed to be considered to be included again for Grundversorgung or basic support (they were removed from Grundversorgung after the demonstrations, contrary to government promises).
The government also deported some of the activists. The authorities cynically state that Pakistan is a safe country. In desperation, asylum seekers started a hunger strike, which Socialist Left Party (SLP, CWI in Austria) advised against. The efforts of the Caritas and the Catholic authorities not only concentrated on ending the hunger strike, but also on moving asylum seekers to other accommodation organised by the church. Clearly the government felt very uneasy about the protests. Both Caritas and the Catholic authorities, together with allegedly left wing liberal media, started a slander campaign against supporters of the refugees, saying that the organised left “uses” the refugees for their own interests, arrogantly ignoring the capability of the refugees to make their own decisions. At the same time, they accuse us of creating illusions among the asylum seekers that their struggle can be successful.
The movement is rich among lessons for the left. For , it underlines how crucial democratic structures are for a movement, that the capitalist media (including most liberal or “left” sections) while sometimes, as in this case, widely reporting a struggle are, ultimately, a political instrument of the ruling class that will not support a challenge to their system, and that open ‘negotiations’ instead of solutions behind closed doors are needed. The success of the demonstration on 16 February also shows what is possible if a Marxist party is present, making coordinated suggestions for how to advance the movement.
Unions need join struggle
The SLP supporting the protest movement from the start, earning the respect of both refugees and supporters. We stressed that the trade unions need to be included to broaden the protests and to overcome the racist slanders made by the FPÖ against the asylum seekers. A central demand we put forward was for a shortening of working hours, with full compensation of pay, to create jobs. Through this demand, we argued, the movement could both build a bridge to the trade union movement, which just started taking up this demand again, and counter the racist campaign of the FPÖ which plays on the fears over jobs.
We were central in mobilising for the 16 February demonstration. One major problem of the movement is the lack of democratic structures. The SLP suggested a conference of the movement to discuss a strategy and perspectives, as well as to democratically elect representatives that will be accountable and subject to recall.
The asylum seekers ended their hunger strike as a result of confidence gained because of the successful demonstration on 16 February .
The protests set a precedent in Austria - refugees themselves can fight for their rights. The government is disconcerted about the movement. An indication for this is that there was hardly any police repression on the 16 February demonstration.
The government has been forced to carry out public discussion about possibilities for asylum seekers to work legally, such as carrying out seasonal work or self-employed work. This does not meet what is demanded by the refugees but it shows that the government is forced to partly address their demands in some manner. Whether the movement will be successful will depend on whether the trade unions can be involved and therefore broaden support in the working class and whether the movement succeeds in electing democratic structures.