Austria: Refugee crisis, solidarity and resistance

Working class solidarity – a beacon of hope

The refugee crisis in the Balkans and central Europe, especially in Austria, Germany and Hungary, is unfolding more and more rapidly. In the past two weeks, the situation has changed numerous times. New U-turns appear almost on a daily basis as a result of the constantly shifting balance of forces. While this article was being written, Germany shut its borders to Austria. Train traffic was stopped.

Then, Austria shut its border with Hungary. In answer to the first blows to the Fortress Europe policy dealt by the movements, the fortress is now in the process of reinforcement and rearmament. In Hungary, new laws that resemble a constant state of emergency are being passed, and the army is mobilised.

Working class solidarity – a beacon of hope

End of August, 71 dead refugees were found in a truck in southern Austria. This provoked national outrage. While the daily horror stories of the Mediterranean hardly make it into the news anymore, this could no longer be ignored. The dead had arrived in Austria. The situation evoked Rosa Luxemburg’s words: “Usually a corpse is a silent, unhandsome thing, but sometimes dead bodies speak louder than trumpets and shine brighter than torches.” On 31 August, more than 20,000 people marched in Vienna in solidarity with refugees and against the murderous EU border regime. On the same night, thousands of refugees arrived in Vienna. They came on trains from Hungary. For a time, the Orban regime decided to let them pass, thus consciously ignoring the Schengen and Dublin Treaties. The refugees who made it onto the trains were welcomed by hundreds of voluntary helpers and activists. Food and aid was provided. It was the start of a self-organised solidarity movement, which grew from that day on.

Now, at all the bigger train stations along the routes of the refugees, structures are in place that help the refugees in every possible way, bring together families etc. Tens of thousands were active, supermarkets were sold out in the first days, railway workers stayed after their shift to help, doctors set up improvised clinics, working class immigrants become translators, students organised language courses – the list goes on and on. The state and semi-state NGOs completely neglected the refugee crisis for weeks. If it wasn’t for the countless volunteers, the refugees in Austria would face an absolute catastrophe, comparable to the horrifying conditions in Hungary. The wave of solidarity, overwhelmingly from ordinary working class people, showed in an absolutely magnificent way the possibility of overcoming the sterility of capitalist propaganda, which constantly tries to convince us that humans are inherently selfish.

This has not kept leading politicians from trying to hijack the existing mood to score some “humanity points”. Merkel, who just two months ago did not blink when she told a young Palestinian refugee girl on live television that “sometimes politics is hard” and she would be deported from Germany, was now cheered by the world press for her hospitality.

Leading Austrian politicians, who are responsible for the inhumane conditions in the already existing refugee camps in Austria like Traiskirchen (which was built for 400 and currently contains 4,000 refugees, many of whom have to sleep outside), also tried to present themselves as friends of the refugees. Towards the international public, open arms and happy smiles were shown. But behind the scenes, Austria and Germany insisted on Hungary “getting back in line” and to stopping refugees getting through. Orban obeyed and used even more brutality against refugees than before.

The refugee “camp” in Röszke became a symbol of the complete denial of any basic human rights: It was nothing but a huge field without any infrastructure, not even sanitary installations, guarded by riot police. If it was up to the state, the people would have been left there to die. For over a week, the only help the thousands of refugees got was from volunteers, especially Hungarians and Austrians. But even the most brutal repression and attempts to hold back the refugees could not stop them and the solidarity movements. Refugees started to walk to the Austrian border, volunteers and activists supported them and even helped people crossing borders illegally. From that point in time, thousands entered Austria on a daily basis. Most of them continued their painful journey to Germany.

Protest & resistance

Activists of the Socialist Left Party (SLP), the Austrian section of the CWI, were active in the movement from the beginning. For years, we have led struggles against deportations and for refugees’ rights, most notably the refugee protest movement in 2012/13, where the SLP played a leading role. We participate in providing concrete aid – collecting donations etc. – but we always combine this with the political perspective of building a powerful socialist opposition movement. While the courage of thousands of volunteers continues to amaze, it is clear that the improvised structures will not be able to carry the weight of tens of thousands of refugees entering the country. The self-organised structures, especially the Initiative “Train of Hope” at the Vienna Central Station, are being left alone by the city and the federal governments. They need support from the state – after all, it is not the job of individuals to provide basic necessities in situations of need. At the same time, the state must not take control over the structures that were built up – because as soon as the tide turns, it will use them against the refugees. What we need is the guarantee of resources and funding by the state to help the refugees – but under the democratic control of the activists and the refugees!

In Vienna, SLP activists regularly collect money, food and aid in a working class district, in which we are also standing in the regional elections taking place in October. We do that by organising stalls and rallies, where we make the point that there is enough for everyone, if we join hands with refugees and migrants and fight for it. The richest 10% in Austria see their wealth grow every day by €80 million. This incredible figure shows that it would be absolutely possible to provide not just concrete help, but jobs, housing and education for everyone, regardless of nationality! Additionally, we are establishing a steady supply of bread and meds for the refugees that were brought to a football stadium in a neighbouring district. Also, the SLP is building solidarity in schools across the country. Action committees are being formed, where students will not only collect necessities for refugees, but also organise protests and resistance and mobilise for the next mass demonstration on 3 October. In Linz, we regularly campaign on one of the main shopping streets and already raised hundreds of euros for the movement. In Gmunden, a small city in the Alps, we initiated a whole youth campaign called the “Anti-racist platform – solidarity with refugees”. SLP activists were part of an aid convoy to Röszke and helped out at the Vienna Central Station.

A continent breaking apart

As Schengen is collapsing before our eyes, the socialist argument for a movement that does not limit itself just to immediate bread-and-butter issues, but organises a militant fight against the border regime and for jobs, housing and equal rights for everyone, becomes more and more urgent. Fortress Europe is striking back, and we need to mobilise with all we’ve got to stop the ruling classes from pushing us into a spiral of nationalism and barbarism.

The Greek crisis showed that the euro is doomed to fail – competing capitalist nation states cannot be bound together by a common currency indefinitely. The prolonged economic crisis pushed the different national capitalist classes to start to abandon the illusion of a common EU policy and retreat to the front lines of their own nation states to secure their interests in a more and more vicious battle for profits. The refugee crisis shows the other side of the same coin, when centrifugal forces accelerated at a dazzling speed just within the last few weeks.

As soon as Germany announced that it would re-introduce border controls, Austria joined in, as well as the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland. Hungary is enforcing its border with Serbia in a way that reminds one of a war situation, while trying to get rid of as many refugees as possible, sending them to the Austrian border, where they are now confronted with controls and even a military presence. Any plan by the EU commission to coordinate the influx of refugees and distribute them according to some quota will be shattered by the different national ruling classes. Hungary is even building a 60 meter wide extraterritorial zone along its borders to neighbouring EU countries Croatia and Romania. The FPÖ, the far right Austrian party, which was silenced during the first wave of the solidarity movement, is now raising its ugly head again and tries to exploit the already bad conditions of Austrian working class people by directing their anger against refugees and immigrants in general.

Now, an international movement must be built that can challenge the lunacy of European capitalism. On 12 September, hundreds of thousands marched all over Europe under the slogan: “Europe says welcome!” But it was not their Europe which marched that day, it was not the Europe of the millionaires, the border fences, not the EU – but our Europe, the Europe of the millions, the working people of all nationalities. Enormous battles are looming. The ruling classes will be willing to drag us all into barbarism in order to secure their borders and their profits. Their manoeuvres during the last few days show that they are prepared to walk over countless corpses. The labour movement must stand up to this challenge. Up to now, nothing but empty phrases have been uttered by the leadership of ÖGB, the Austrian trade union federation, while thousands of trade union members are already engaged in solidarity work. It is absolutely vital to reconquer these potentially powerful organisations and turn them into multi-ethnic weapons of the working class. The football stadium where many refugees were recently brought to is just 1km from the headquarters of the ÖGB – they can’t come much closer! The unions have to approach the refugees, help them and organize them in order to fight for their rights. This is especially important because more and more employers present themselves as friends of refugees and demand that they can access the labour market, in order to create a new low wage sector and attack workers’ rights in general. The unions must not dodge this question – they have to face it, demanding full access to the labour market with the same rights for all workers and a common struggle for higher wages and better conditions for everyone. Unless they do this the far right will further exploit the situation.

Socialism or barbarism is becoming a more and more imminent choice. We need to expropriate the billionaires to guarantee a good life for everyone. We need to reclaim the thousands upon thousands of empty homes, which are being kept vacant for speculation reasons, in order to provide shelter for refugee families as well as Austrian homeless. We need to nationalise the banking sector and the key industries under democratic workers’ control and management – not just to run them in the interest of people here, but also to put an end to the imperialist exploitation of the countries the refugees are fleeing from. Austrian companies like the oil producer OMV or the weapons’ producer Glock are making billions of profits from conditions that force people to flee their countries. The fantastic solidarity shown by millions of working people in Europe shows, that this battle can be won. It shows that we can create a world in which no-one has to flee their home. A democratic and socialist world.

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September 2015