Saturday, March 12, 2011

Austria maintains firm stance on refugee policies amid criticism

By Kristina Hauptmann

Edited by Gina Edwards

People seeking asylum in Austria could soon have a more difficult time gaining refugee status and access to the country.

Although asylum seekers currently must initially register in reception centers, newly proposed policies seek to detain them in such centers for up to seven days. The Austrian Cabinet has already approved these changes, which will go to a vote in the Parliament in April.

To the United Nations Refugee Agency, such changes to policy are bad for integration and can be traumatizing to asylum seekers, said Ruth Schöffl, spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Vienna.

“It’s a question of how you deal with people when they come to your country,” she said. “If you lock them up right away, it seems they’re not welcome. It’s too hard on people, and I don’t think it would bring Austria any benefits by doing it.”

However, the Interior Ministry maintains that the new policies fully comply with the Geneva Refugee Convention.

“Those people who really need protection will always be granted it,” said Gerald Dreveny, deputy head of the Department for Asylum Affairs. He added that many people enter Austria seeking temporary work, which does not qualify them for refugee status.

An asylum seeker is anyone fleeing his or her country because of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, or political opinion, according to the UNHCR website. When asylum seekers enter Austria, they must undergo a review process with the Federal Asylum Office to prove their need, according to the UNHCR website. If turned down, they can appeal in Asylum Court.

When asylum seekers gain access to the country, they are considered refugees with access to housing, social security, work, and integration, Schöffl said.

Under the new policies, asylum seekers must stay in reception centers for up to seven days, and minors ages 16 to 18 can be confined for up to two months, Schöffl said.

“When you’re not allowed to leave, it’s basically detention,” she said. “There should be no detention for minors in general.”

In a Feb. 22 news release, Christoph Pinter, head of UNHCR’s legal department in Austria, called the country’s new procedures “a prison with open doors.”

This regime is disproportionate and both legal and humanitarian points of view are being rejected,” Pinter said.

The reception centers are used to conduct interviews and medical checks of the asylum seekers, Dreveny said.

“This does not mean they’re imprisoned,” he said.

In addition to confinement to detention centers, the legal counseling system for asylum seekers is also changing, Schöffl said. The legal aid is provided by the government, making it difficult for asylum seekers to trust their counselors, she said.

“They don’t know if [the information] goes directly into the ministry,” Schöffl said.

Although he acknowledged arguments from groups like the UNHCR, Dreveny said they didn’t accurately reflect the situation.

“There is no single country in the world when you deal with immigration where there isn’t criticism,” he said.

Last year, Austria received about 11,000 asylum seekers, with most coming from Afghanistan, Somalia and Iraq, Schöffl said. About 18 percent of them received refugee status, she said. The last major wave of asylum seekers came during the 1990s, when Austria absorbed about 100,000 Bosnian refugees, she said.

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