A humanitarian crisis in the Austrian Alps
Updated: May 14
Tyrol, Austria's western state, is popular for its ski resorts. But it is now the location of hunger-striking refugees, the youngest of whom is 15 years old.
The strike started three weeks ago with a dozen refugees and is still going on. The reason behind the strike is the poor living conditions of the refugees, living in a repatriation centre located 1250 meters on the top of a mountain, which makes them be isolated from the outside world.
Since November 2017 the Austrian government has been sending refugees to the repatriation centre, whose applications for asylum got rejected. The reason why they 'can't be sent back' to their homes after a rejected asylum application varies. But the most common is that they are either 'stateless' (there's no state for them to return) or they don't have any documents.
Living in isolation
The refugees are located in a town called Fieberbrunn which has a lack of social connections and facilities to cover basic needs like supermarkets and pharmacies. The closest town, offering these facilities, is two to three hours away from the repatriation centre.
Leaving the district is not allowed for refugees, so engaging and socialising, in the state's capital Innsbruck, for example, is out of the question.
"We don't have any neighbours. We don't have a normal life. This here is like a prison", says one of the refugees, who want to stay anonymous, "We're like animals on this mountain. All we do is eat, sleep and think."
The isolation has effects on the refugees' wellbeing and mental health. Christina Bielowski, an Austrian politician of the Social Democratic Party, says that they need a place to live in civilisation. She emphasises that many adults in the centre suffer from mental illness.
The politician also says that in case of an emergency, it would take an ambulance roughly an hour to reach the destination.
The refugee who described the centre as a prison says that his current living situation has had impacts on his health, "Before I came here, I was healthy. Now I have to use an asthma spray. I have to take sleeping pills. I have to take pills against stress. The doctor gave me a written statement, that I shouldn’t stay in this camp. I gave the written statement to the Ministry of Interior of Austria more than 2 months ago. But I haven’t heard of them yet."
Reasons behind the hunger strike:
Even though there's space available in refugee camps in and around Tyrol, with social services and social workers, the refugees have to stay in Fieberbrunn. Bielowski explains why: "This is a strategy of the Ministry of Interior of Austria. They want to make the refugees' lives as difficult as possible so that they will return to their homes voluntarily."
But the striking refugees say that they can not go back, stating that it's not safe for them to return to their homes.
The youngest of them, who's 15 years old, says, "It’s dangerous to my life and my mother’s life to go back, that’s why I take part in this hunger strike."
Despite raising awareness of their poor living conditions, the refugees require another examination of their asylum application.
What is the current situation?
Georg Dornauer, an Austrian politician of the Social Democratic Party, says that a new examination of asylum applications and the living conditions must be considered separately.
"On the one hand there's the asylum procedure and on the other hand, there are inhumane living conditions," he continues, "We assume that the procedure was fair and the rejected application is justified."
He adds, "The people have to be taken out of this isolation and have to live under human standards. We stand in solidarity with the refugees on the hunger strike and appeal for the closure of the centre."
In Innsbruck citizens have set up a camp in front of the State Museum. Citizens and politicians alike show solidarity with the refugees. An estimated number of seven people joined the refugees in the hunger strike for nine days. Bielowski was one of them.
M. Kilic a human rights activist from Innsbruck on the current situation: "We stand in solidarity with the refugees. We joined the hunger strike for nine days. The oppression of these people rises day by day. The caregivers in the centre are inpatient and the Ministry of Interior of Austria doesn't give any sign of life."
Mayor of Innsbruck, Georg Willi, asks the Minister of Interior Wolfgang Peschorn in an open letter to accommodate the refugees in 'human' conditions.
The Ministry of Interior of Austria and opposing parties have been unable to provide a response.