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Europe

Asylum seekers occupy Viennese church

Political refugees in Vienna are starving themselves to protest against poor living conditions. The Austrian government wants the protest to end as soon as possible - but it seems there's no end in sight.

In the dark, neo-gothic Votive Church near Vienna's city center, weak winter sunlight filters through stained glass windows and illuminates the mattresses and blankets jammed into a corner. More than a dozen young men lie in the jumble of bedding.

"We got families," says one of the protesters. "We got situations that people just don't understand. We gotta make a change. We gotta make people understand."

The protesters say they will starve themselves to death unless the Austrian government changes its refugee policy. They marched on the church from a refugee center 20 kilometers outside of Vienna. They say conditions there are overcrowded, that they receive only 150 euros a month ($198) on which to live and that many of them will spend years in these cramped quarters, sometimes with young families. Muhamed Numan, a 24-year-old from Pakistan, defines the group's goals.

The two tall spires of the chalk-colored Votive Church dominate the cityscape of Vienna. (Photo: Votava / dpa)

Vienna's Votive Church has guards at the doors to protect refugees

"The first is asylum," he says. "The second is free education. The third is freedom of movement."

They also want to stop the deportation of those who have been refused refugee status, as well as to erase refugee fingerprint records. The Austrian government says it is not prepared to meet those demands.

'No further talks'

"These demands, like the right to stay for everyone, like the erasing of finger-prints … lack any legal basis and don't come anywhere near meeting EU regulations," said Austrian interior minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner.

Austrian Freedom Party MP Norbert Hofer also believes that the asylum seekers' message will not be well received in Austria.

A brunette woman with spectacles looks thoughtfully off-camera, her right hand on her chin. (Photo credit: DIETER NAGL/AFP/Getty Images)

Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner must adhere to EU law

"People have no time for someone who comes to Austria seeking protection and then starts demonstrating," Hofer said. "In Austria we have done a lot. Between 2005 and 2010 alone we spent a billion euros on asylum provision."

Hofer's party, the far-right Freedom Party, would like to see the church occupation ended. They say the protesters should be charged with disrupting religious practice, even though services are still being held in the Votive Church. They're also calling for hunger strikers to be detained and force fed. But, as the minister admits, "right now there's no end in sight."

A breakthrough in the stand-off did seem possible three weeks into the occupation. At short notice the interior minister invited several of the protesters for face-to-face talks in her office. The move was not well received by some of the group's members.

"That meeting was organized behind doors," said Muhamed Numan. "They want to negotiate with the refugees, and behind doors. Why? Are these refugees not human? Are these refugees not respectable?"

"We repeated our offer of accommodation from the city of Vienna, Caritas and the interior ministry," said Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner. "We are ready. But concerning their other demands we have made it clear - on these there will be no further talks."

Desperate measures

Georg Bürstmayer, a lawyer working with asylum seekers, says the hunger strikers are driven to desperate measures by a desperate situation.

"What I conclude from observations and discussion is that these people are very very serious," Bürstmayer said. "It really is about existential questions … and they are ready to put their health on the line."

A sign reading Caritas hangs out from the side of a building. (Photo: Uwe Zucchi)

The Catholic Caritas organization operates in 200 countries

The protesters are backed by aid agencies and NGOs, which have been criticizing the government's asylum policies for years. They claim that accommodation for refugees is overcrowded and that the burden of care falls mainly on charities like the Catholic aid agency Caritas.

"There must be some improvements," said Klaus Schwerter from Caritas. "That's obvious to all the participants."

Whether that is so obvious to the Austrian government has yet to be seen. As the campaign drags on, though, it increasingly hopes to end what has become a major source of embarrassment.

Yet the leaders of the protest movement also have their own fears - namely, that they will soon lose the media's attention.

Perhaps with that in mind, Muhamed continues to invite any and all to visit protestors in Vienna's Votive Church.

"Please open this door of the church for everybody," he says. "For the citizens, for the tourists, for everybody. They can come and they can share our feelings with them."

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