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Macondo - Refuge in Austria

Refugees from Hungary
near Klingenbach, Burgenland, 1956
© Votava, Vienna

Refugees on the Outskirts of the City
A place that reflects the history of flight to Austria in all its facets is Macondo. Macondo is an unusual settlement on the outskirts of Vienna, on the other side of the Simmeringer Heide [Simmering Heath], situated among waste disposal plants, the motorway bridge and those little plots called Schrebergärten where city dwellers can plant a garden and relax but not live. More than 1500 people live in this settlement on the site of the former k.u.k. [imperial and royal] barracks, Kaiserebersdorf. What unites these people is a common fate: They had to flee their homeland. The people who have found refuge here in the last fifty years represent a piece of contemporary history. They are witnesses to expulsion, persecution, political conflicts, uprisings, war. This sprawling area in Kaiserebersdorf is owned by the Austrian Ministry of the Interior; the buildings and infrastructure are maintained out of a fund for the integration of refugees, also under the authority of the Ministry of the Interior.

First of all, in 1956, it was the Hungarians who were housed in the barracks, today an extremely desolate place. Around 200 Hungarians who came here then still live here. Then in 1974 came politically persecuted refugees from Chile and a short time later the so-called "boat-people" from Vietnam who were accommodated in prefabricated box-like row-houses, rapidly thrown together. The Chilean community in Macondo today amounts to about a hundred individuals and the number of Vietnamese residents is about the same. There followed people from a variety of states, from Eastern Europe, Africa, Latin America, Asia. For many of them the provisional accommodation that Austria put at their disposal has become a permanent residence. Thus arose an unusual, oddly assorted "village to which Chilean refugees gave the name "Macondo." (The imaginary Macondo is a place in Gabriel Garcia Marquez' A Hundred Years of Solitude. It is a place full of fantasy, of tropical richness and strange events; here the absurd and the crazy blossom together, comedy exists side by side with tragedy and misery). Since 1998 two newly built hostels set up by the Ministry of the Interior have provided more refugees with a temporary roof over their heads. Yet again people are coming here to Macondo, with their troubles, their languages, their cultures and their hopes for a new home in their otherwise meager baggage.

One of the two new hostels, named after Cardinal Franz König, houses primarily war refugees from the former Yugoslavia. The house offers refugees who have already lived and worked longer in Austria a start-up residence where they may not stay longer than five years. On the whole, the Bosnian, Serbian and Albanian families live - as do most people in Macondo - without conflict. In the second new building there live freshly recognized "convention-refugees," i.e., refugees who match the definition of the Geneva Convention as being entitled to political asylum. Among them many refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Columbia and various African states.

The old and new residents of Macondo were lucky to be allowed into Austria, but the peripheral position of the refugee settlement out there on the edge of town speaks for itself - many people call it a "ghetto." The way in to Austrian society is a long road and many do not manage to get past the diverse barriers to integration. Many of the asylum-seekers have fought for years to be recognized as refugees in Austria, and after negative asylum decisions they have persisted and gone through various stages of appeal until they were successful. Apart from difficulties with the asylum authorities and with restrictive legal conditions, a raw wind of another kind blows in the faces of refugees in Austria. The Freedom party canvassed in the elections to the National Assembly in 1999 and in the elections to provincial parliament in 2005 on xenophobic slogans. The whole city of Vienna was plastered with ads saying: "Stop Asylum Abuse". In view of the restrictive Austrian policy on asylum, this slogan lacks any basis in fact. It called forth great indignation in the public, especially in refugee help organizations.

Austria, Land of Asylum?
Up to the middle of the 1980s the Second Republic boasted of being open to all people who sought protection from persecution. A hundred thousand refugees, primarily from the East European states were willingly taken into the country. Now however since the fall of the Iron Curtain and with the end of the Cold War, the tradition of being a land of asylum has been gradually abandoned.

In the years 1945 to 1950, Austria took in, on a temporary basis, more than a million refugees including ethnic Germans from other parts of Central and Eastern Europe, and the Soviet Europe. There followed the spectacular exodus of 200,000 Hungarians in 1956/57, the majority of whom applied for asylum in Austria. In 1968/69 more than 160,000 Czechs and Slovaks fled abroad via Austria. In the 1970s, Austria also took on a voluntary basis numerous politically persecuted people from various overseas countries, for example, Chile and Uganda. In 1981/82 there were between 120,000 and 150,000 refugees from Poland in Austria, and this was the time when voices first began to be raised demanding a more restrictive asylum policy.

As the number of Rumanian refugees grew in 1989, so political and public debates intensified on the question of how many refugees Austria could take. An asylum policy change set in, made very clear by the stationing of the federal army on the Eastern border in the beginning of the 1990s. The background for this paradigm change in Austrian refugee policy was the end of the East-West conflict. For years Austria had been especially willing to take in people from the countries on the other side of the Iron Curtain because "it always liked to see itself as a "bridgehead" to the free, Western world and so prove itself as a sovereign democratic state through its liberal immigration policy; to this extent, Austrian asylum and refugee policy was in the tradition of the Cold War and its two-way logic." (cf. Patrik-Paul Volf: Der politische Flühtling als Symbol der Zweiten Republik [The Political Refugee as Symbol of the Second Republic] in Zeitgeschichte [Contemporary History], 11-12, 1995, p. 426.) At the same time in the run-up to EU-membership of 1995, Austria was already taking part in the standardization of the asylum and migration policy of the EU, and since 1992/1993 it has tightened its own asylum, residence and alien laws, a process that is continuing up to the present, see AsylG 2005, [Asylum Law 2005].

Tightening the Asylum Law
Since 1992 refugees who have come into Austria through a so-called safe third country have no chance of asylum. A state counts as a safe third country if the refugee is already safe from persecution there. All countries that border on Austria are classified by the Austrian authorities as safe. Since most refugees in fact come by land to Austria, most are therefore not entitled to stay. Those, for example, who have only passed through Hungary in the course of their flight are as a rule simply pushed back to Hungary. Like 144 other states, Austria has signed the Geneva Refugee Convention of 1951 (Status February 2006). The convention protects people who have to flee from their homelands out of fear of persecution. Whoever comes to Austria and wants to claim such protection must apply for asylum. On the basis of speeded up procedures and of sending people back to safe third countries, the number of asylum seekers in Austria has now gone down considerably, as has the number of those accepted. Austria is, not least, a party to the Schengen Agreement that defines the principles of the refugee policy of the EU. One of the main goals of the Schengen Agreement is the so-called "one-chance-only-principle;" that is, a refugee whose application for asylum was already denied in one EU-state cannot apply for asylum in another EU- state. The data on refugees and asylum seekers are exchanged by the authorities with the help of the Schengen information system.

During the civil war in the former Yugoslavia, Austria took in countless thousands of refugees. A temporary residence permit was given to them up to the end of the war. In 1999, the year of the Kosovo-crisis, significantly more people were granted asylum than in the years before. Apart from such large events on the immigration scene, it has become more difficult for refugees from a whole variety of states to be accepted in Austria. Austrian asylum policy comes under migration policy and so also comes under the sweeping restrictions placed on new emigration. "Refugee policy is seen as part of the overall concept of 'migration' and so is subject to the leitmotiv of minimization of migrants." (cf. Patrik-Paul Volf. Der politische Fluchtling als Symbol der Zweiten Republik [The Political Refugee as Symbol of the Second Republic], p. 434.)

Marcus Omufuma
In 1999, the methods that Austria uses to deport refugees and get them out of the country occasioned a wave of outrage because the deportation practices of the authorities claimed a victim's life. On May 1, 1999, Marcus Omufuma, a rejected Nigerian asylum seeker, died during his deportation in a flight from Vienna to Sofia. He was accompanied by three Austrian officials who were charged with getting him out of the country. Adhesive tape was stuck over his mouth to keep him quiet. He suffocated. In the media it was spread around that he had rampaged about, bitten people and endangered the officials. The only crime of which Marcus O. was guilty was that of being "illegal" in Austria. At the time of his deportation, the court hearing to determine his right to political asylum was still going on; it had not been concluded. Similar cases have also occurred in Belgium and Germany, and have led to Europe-wide discussion on practices of deporting refugees.

Station: Macondo - Refuge in Austria
(Last update: 03/2006)

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