Austria's new coalition of intolerance

Austria's new coalition of intolerance
4 min read
29 December, 2017
Austria's new government is pushing for harsh measures against refugees, such as the confiscation of cash and mobile phones, writes Emran Feroz.
Protesters in Austria call for open borders for refugees [Anadolu]
Earlier this month, Austria's new right-wing conservative government was inaugurated. While Sebastian Kurz, leader of the conservative People's Party (ÖVP) became Europe's youngest chancellor, several key ministries landed in the hands of the right-wing extremist Freedom Party (FPÖ).

With the FPÖ's control over the the country's interior, foreign and defence ministries, the police, the army and the intelligence services are now headed by far-right politicians.

Herbert Kickl, Austria's new interior minister, is notorious not least for having once written the racist and anti-Semitic speeches of the infamous Jörg Haider. Haider used to be the Freedom Party's leading figure in the 1990s and early 2000s before he and his supporters formed a splinter party.

In 2008, Haider - then already a legend among Europe's far-right - died in a car accident. Kickl himself is well known for the party's slogans such as "Daham statt Islam" (loosely translated as "Home, not Islam").

He also appears at events such as the "Defenders of Europe Congress" ("Verteidiger Europas") where right-wing politicians, writers and activists from all over Europe and other parts of the world gather in Austria.

Alexander Höferl, a former leading figure of an extreme right-wing online publication which regularly spreads racist and Islamophobic views and could fairly be described as the Austrian version of Breitbart, has been named the new interior ministry spokesperson. 

With such a government in place, a radical change in terms of asylum and migration policy is likely. And as many observers expected, the new Austrian government has already announced harsh measures against refugees.

One such measure suggests that in future, mobile phones and cash belonging to newly arrived refugees should be confiscated. The government argues that the money should be used as part of the primary care of all refugees, while financial aid will no longer be on offer.

Mobile phones are set to be confiscated for an unknown amount of time. Refugees are to hand them over to authorities so that data can be checked. According to the new government, the aim is to screen the refugees' personality, which route she or he took to Europe, and other kinds of data.

Additionally, medics who treat refugees could be forced to share everything that "appears to be important" with authorities, meaning that the right to privacy no longer applies to refugees in Austria.

"I become scared when I hear of the plans of the new government. When I arrived in Austria six years ago, I couldn't imagine how I would have reacted if the police took my phone or my money from me.

"Refugees are human beings too. They had a reason when they fled from their country. Such a treatment towards them is, in my opinion, totally inhumane and not acceptable", said Fardeen Sultanzada, 26, an Afghan refugee who lives in the city of Innsbruck.

Over the last five years, Sultanzada has applied for asylum twice, and a few months ago, it was finally accepted.

"I always had the feeling that many people in Austria don't like refugees. They believe that we are evil and that we take away their jobs and their money. Although facts have often proved that this is just propaganda, so many Austrians decided to vote for a right-wing extremist party, the Freedom Party.

"Now they are in power, and they can do a lot against people like me, people who just fled from war and destruction and want to build a new life", lamented Sultanzada.

Medics who treat refugees can be forced to share everything that 'appears to be important' with authorities

But while many Austrian voters elected the new government, many others stand against it, and its policies.

During the inauguration, thousands of people demonstrated in Vienna against racism and facism. However, many others were painfully aware of any real criticism from within the political sphere.

Back in 2000, the last time the Freedom Party joined the government, there was international outrage and the European Union targeted Austria with sanctions.

Today, times have changed. Austrian president Alexander Van der Bellen, a former Green politician who once said he would not support a government consisting of right-wing extremists, welcomed the government warmly and without much criticism.

International and European outrage is practically non-existent. This may be because right-wing parties are on the move across the continent, and have already become more mainstream, or socially acceptable.

However, many young people, especially migrants, are deeply concerned about current events.

"The result was clear. The people wanted this government. Nevertheless, I think that the situation is very problematic, also from a democratic point of view", said Ahmet Demir, a former member of the Landtag in the state of Tirol. Demir, who has Turkish roots and is still a member of the Greens, believes that the policies of the new government might set Austria back up to 20 or 30 years.

"The migration and asylum policy especially, is a mess. This cannot be described as a progress. It's just horrible what we are going to face", he said.

Emran Feroz is a freelance journalist based in Germany and the founder of Drone Memorial, a website that lists the victims of drone strikes.

Follow him on Twitter: @Emran_Feroz

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.