10 years after Katrina, Austria faces its own storm over bungled refugee response

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Arab refugees in the Traiskirchen camp. [Caritas Vienna]

Immigrant-bashing politicians are making enormous capital out of Austria’s refugee crisis. The Hurricane Katrina tragedy offers voters important lessons that can help prevent the scapegoating of migrants, writes Timothy Spence.

Timothy Spence is a freelance journalist who lives in Vienna. He was a Washington, DC-based journalist at the time of Katrina.

A decade after the Hurricane Katrina disaster on the US Gulf Coast exposed the lack of preparation and botched early response by federal disaster authorities, Austria is experiencing its own Katrina.

The crisis here is not exclusively weather-related, though a blistering mid-summer heatwave didn’t help. Austria’s problem stems from the tens of thousands of people fleeing conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, and economic or political disenfranchisement in Africa as well as poor European countries. Some 30,000 people sought asylum in the first half of the year, and the government estimates the number could top 80,000 by year’s end.

Austria is just a mirror of what is happening across the European Union, with politicians battling over how to respond to one of the the region’s worse humanitarian crises of modern times. Frontex estimates that 340,000 people braved the Mediterranean crossing in the first six months of this year, and tens of thousands more have arrived in the EU in the weeks since.

But Austria’s failure to cope is something of a puzzle. This small country of 8.5 million people has an impressive history of sheltering those in need – from the Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks and East Germans yearning for freedom during the Cold War, to victims of the Balkan wars in the 1990s. The munificent decision by Austrian and Hungarian leaders to begin razing the border fences in 1989 played no small part in the broader chain of events that would lead to the fall of the entire Iron Curtain.

The glory days seem to be over, and there is mounting criticism of how the government has handled – or mishandled – today’s crisis. Christoph Pinter, who heads the UN refugee agency’s office in Austria, has called conditions at a main camp for asylum-seekers on the southern edge of Vienna “dangerous and inhumane”. Visiting the Traiskirchen camp in late July, he reported that more than 2,000 people, including women and children, were forced to sleep on the ground because of shortage of beds.

An Amnesty International inspection of Traiskirchen found that parents were separated from their children, that women and men were forced to use the same bathing facilities, and that there was a shortage of medical care. Amnesty’s local leader, Heinz Patzelt, this month described conditions at Traiskirchen as “a symptom of a far-reaching structural failure”.

I went to the town last week, on a cool, damp morning following a night of steady rain. Journalists aren’t allowed into the camp, which at various stages of its history has served as an imperial military school, a Red Army hospital and a refuge for those fleeing the Soviet crackdown in Hungary. Residents were trying to dry bedding and clothing on fences and bushes. One young Iraqi man with a amateurly bandaged hand told me through the fence that there were no doctors available to help him; a Syrian woman with two children told me she was a diabetic and needed medicine. Refugees are allowed to leave the camp, and a young African asylum-seeker waiting to take the tram into Vienna confirmed what I had read in the newspaper, that camp residents have to take shelter in parked city buses when it is raining or too hot.

Meantime, the arrival of more refugees and the appearance of a government incapable of handling the situation have energised the right-wing, anti-immigrant Freedom party (FPÖ). The party’s popularity has surged this summer, and threatens to shake up the governing coalition of the S&D-affiliated Social Democrats (SPÖ) and centrist EPP-affiliated People’s party (ÖVP).

Katrina, which hit the Louisiana coast on 29 August 2005, was certainly a different matter than today’s crisis in Austria. Yet there are similarities. In both cases, political leaders miserably failed to prepare for a catastrophe they could see coming. Moreover, today’s victims of events outside their own control are enduring the same shortage of basic humanitarian provisions as those driven from their homes by the hurricane.

Some two weeks after the bungled handling of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, the man in charge of emergency response – FEMA director Michael Brown – was forced to resign and the Bush White House rushed to do damage control. In Austria, by contrast, the people in charge have circled the wagons. Prime Minister Werner Faymann (SPÖ), Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner (ÖVP) as well as Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP), who is also in charge of “integration”, carry on. Last week, the interior and justice ministers even tossed out the idea of suing the EU over the Dublin rules on asylum seekers, then quickly backed down.

There is an important lesson to come from the Katrina tragedy: voters don’t easily forget monumental failure. The Bush Administration’s shambolic initial response to the hurricane would haunt it to the very end, giving the Democrats ample ammunition to portray their Republican opponents as heartless and incompetent. Unfortunately, “Austria’s Katrina” appears to be empowering immigrant-bashing politicians who would love nothing more than to see the current leaders bungle their way to obscurity.

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