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Austrian greeting

Alison Langley, ViennaSeptember 3, 2015

Hungary's prime minister told a press conference that Europeans fear the onslaught of refugees, Austrians disagree. They do agree, though, that politicians have failed to lead, reports Alison Langley from Vienna.

Flüchtlinge am Wiener Bahnhof
Image: Reuters/L. Foeger

Austrians have surprised perhaps even themselves with their open welcome to the stream of refugees knocking on their door.

While neighboring Hungary has erected a 3.5 meter razor-wire fence in an attempt to keep out the thousands of families fleeing war in the Middle East, Austrians race to their borders and train stations to greet them with bottles of water and fresh fruit.

Regular Austrians offer warm blankets and sometimes empty apartments to migrants arriving with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

“We don't have the capacity to understand what they have been through to get here,” says Katharina Winter, 21, a student at the University of Applied Sciences in Vienna. “To enter a boat knowing it could sink; but preferring that to home?”

Österriech Flüchtlingspolitik Katharina Winter
21-year-old Katharina Winter has offered her supportImage: DW/A. Langley

Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban said in Brussels Thursday during a tense press conference that the growing refugee problem was causing angst in his country. “We Hungarians are full of fear, people in Europe are full of fear because they see that the European leaders [...] are not able to control the situation."

European divide

Just across the border from Hungary, though, Austrians appear to disagree. Around 15,000 people answered a call on Facebook Monday to demonstrate their support to refugees. “Say it loud! Say it clear! Refugees are welcome here,” they chanted as they wound their way through downtown Vienna.

That same day, Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn read a mass for the 71 refugees who suffocated while being smuggled into the country last week. During his sermon, he pleaded with the country's top politicians sitting in the front pews to do more to prevent such tragedies. He followed up the next day by promising the Catholic Church would provide housing for 1,000 people in the coming weeks.

Belgien Viktor Orban EU Parlament Brüssel
Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban erected a fence in his country to keep refugees outImage: picture-alliance/dpa/O. Hoslet

Early this year, a private initiative, “Refugees Welcome” was founded to help single asylum seekers and recognized refugees find rooms in group households. So far, 56 young men from Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Iraq and Eritrea are being integrated – and welcomed – into Austrian life through this living arrangement. Another group, WelcomingTours.at, offers to show new arrivals around the country.

Spontaneous help

The growing number of regular Austrians spontaneously stepping up to fill in where politicians and bureaucrats have failed surprises even the Austrians.

Margit Draxl, a spokeswoman for Caritas, said the number of people offering help has increased astronomically over the past few months. Although the charity does not keep statistics, Draxl said there were “definitely more people calling. There is a greal deal of solidarity.”

Flüchtlingskrise Östterreich Flüchtlinge am Wiener Bahnhof
Refugees at Vienna's main train station are hoping to reach GermanyImage: Getty Images/AFP/J. Klamar

Particularly noteworthy were the more than 100 people who spontaneously set up greeting stations in Vienna and Salzburg this week when they heard that refugees were arriving in large numbers at the train stations. Volunteers raced over with water, fruit, toiletries and friendly smiles. Via Facebook pages, they put out a call for translators for Farsi and Arabic.

Caritas visited the greeting center and gave tips, but when it was clear that the tables on platform one in Vienna were well-organized, the charity left the group with a word of thanks.

But Caritas isn't the only group which has experienced overwhelming support. At a newly erected Red Cross field hospital in Traiskirchen, Austria's largest reception center, doctors, nurses and emergency treatment staff work around the clock on a volunteer basis. So far, they have treated more than 500 patients. They erected the makeshift hospital after a damning report by Amnesty International documented “inhumane” and “degrading” conditions at the center.

“My feeling is, Germans, Austrian and Italians are supporting” the refugees, said Franco Algieri, associate professor of International Relations at Webster University in Vienna. “Civil society has acted much faster than at the political level.”

Kurt Kloesch, an insurance executive, agrees. “The uncertainty exists because there's no political leadership,” Kloesch said, as he sipped an espresso at a sidewalk café in Vienna's second district.

Österriech Flüchtlingspolitik Kurt Kloesch
Kurt Kloesch laments the lack of political leadershipImage: DW/A. Langley

Not all Austrians are happy

But not all Austrians are excited to welcome refugees into their country. Hans-Christian Strache, leader of the Austrian Freedom Party, has proposed erecting a barbed wire fence around Austria, much like Hungary has done. Tweets in support of refugees are answered by others who worry that their way of life is being challenged.

Political scientist Algieri said perhaps much of the fear has to do with a failure of communication by European governments. Noting that migrants have been washing up on Italy's shores for more than a year, Algieri said, “It was clear these people would move. That was never clearly communicated – or prepared for.”

Not far from Kloesch, a woman who did not want her name to be used, smoked a cigarette and enjoyed a glass of white wine on a pleasant Thursday afternoon. She said Vienna had taken in enough refugees. It was time now for other cities, states and countries to begin taking in their share.

“Everyone needs to do their part,” she said.