We are helpless but not hopeless

  • 04.05.2013, 20:51

The Refugee Act of 1980 takes its definition of refugee from the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. Until the late 19th century and the emergence of fixed and closed national boundaries, refugees were always absorbed by neighbouring countries. Later, immigration restrictions and increasing numbers of refugees necessitated special action to aid them. In 1921 Fridtjof Nansen created a League of Nations Passport to allow refugees to move freely across national boundaries. Refugee status at that time was accorded only if the migrant's departure was involuntary and asylum was sought in another country. In 1938 the definition of a refugee was expanded to include persons with a well-founded fear of persecution because of ethnicity, religion, nationality, group membership, or political opinion.

Later the definition was expanded again to include persons who have fled from their homes to other places in their own countries. Refugee status ceases to apply when the migrant either is resettled or returns home.

Why we started this protest.

Say this city has eight million souls,
Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes
Yet there's no place for us, my dear, yet there's no place for us.

We are refugees who have arrived in Austria to seek asylum to build a new life here. Our countries are devastated with war, military aggression, social backwardness and poverty because of colonialist politics. We have come from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Nigeria, Gambia, Syria, Kurdistan, Iran, Chechnya etc. and now we are stuck here in the refugee camp Traiskirchen. In this camp, we expected to get help and support from Austria. But the Austrian state showed us that we are not welcome here. We are staying in refugee camps and facing bad conditions.

Basic Rights. We demand basic rights from the Austrian government, the European Union and for all refugees worldwide. We call on the Austrian government to fulfill its responsibilities towards the refugees. We will continue our actions until our voices are being heard and our demands met.

Once we had a country and we thought it fair,
Look in the atlas and you'll find it there:
We cannot go there now, my dear, we cannot go there now.

On the 24th of November 700 persons including 400 persons from civil society demonstrated against the bad conditions of the refugees – not only in Traiskirchen but also in other camps and accomodations in Austria.

„What we need? Our rights.
What we demand? Our rights“ was the slogan of this protest and until now it’s our guideline for the protest. It was a cold season and refugees preferred to live in the open air in Votivpark instead of the camps from the government. Sometimes it was raining, sometimes snowing but these things never crushed the hopes of the refugees. When we got up in the morning our tents and our beds we were shuttered with water. Civil society of Austria brought warm clothes and warm blankets for us and also we were getting free vegetables and other eatable things. The media made it their business to cover the protests for a little while but could not do any helpful work for us.

In December the temperature dropped to minus zero and for the first time we were worried about the health conditions of these refugees. So somehow on 18th December we managed to take shelter in the Votivkirche. Before the refugees some homeless people had already done the same thing. But when we entered the church, politicians – especially the right wingd and racist people – spoke of an OCCUPATION: „Refugees occupy the Votivkirche“. The priest of this church was never friendly with us. He kicked our beds in the morning with his feet but we could not say anything because after all we were refugees. On the 22nd of December, when we were fed up and we had no other option, we started an hunger strike that lasted for 30 days. At this time we had only two demands:
1. Legal Status in Austria.
2. Access to the Labour Market.

It was a new experience for us. For these refugees it was the first time in their life that they were doing a hunger strike. On the one hand they were fighting with hunger and on the other hand they had the cold temperature inside the church. After ten days the refugees’ condition was miserable and some of them had to be admitted to hospitals. Each person had lost five to ten kilos. Their faces became pale, they were not able to walk and spent all the time inside their beds because they had no power left in their bodies. Some people got mental problems, some with their kidneys and some were suffering from the flu or had a cold. No one took pity on these refugees. Even the UNHCR refused to meet us, altough they say that they are responsible for all the refugees in Europe. A delegation of four persons made an appointment with them but when we were on the way to UNHCR, they canceled this meeting, saying that they didn’t have any meeting room for us and that we could meet outside in a coffee shop or in some park. Alas UNHCR has a big building in the center of Vienna but they don’t have any room to meet for refugees. Because they don’t want to involve themselves in this protest and refuse to help these refugees because these refugees are not seen as human beings.

Dreamed I saw a building with a thousand floors,
A thousand windows and a thousand doors;
Not one of them was ours, my dear, not one of them was ours.

Disappointment. Then Mr. Schönborn came to visit the refugees and did bring an offer to us, to give up the hunger strike: TAKE ONE STEP and I will try to make negotiations with the government and evacuate this church and I will take you to my private property ‘Servitenkloster’. There you can start your protest and I will politically support you, but first you have to give up the hunger strike. At that time we gave up the hunger strike and gave the authorities ten days. But nothing happened and we had to start a new hunger strike because the government was not serious in the matter of refugees. During this pause of the hunger strike we only received one offer: That they would reopen our cases and provide us with the best lawyers of Austria, who will fight for our cases. Was that the price of our 30 days hunger strike? Only to reopen the cases? Besides, we knew that reopening the cases will not help us. Its just a drama enacted by Innenministerium.

So we resumed the hunger strike. I wrote a letter to Mr. President Dr. Heinz Fischer and told him about the whole situation and the miserable conditions of the hunger strikers. Unexpectedly he replied to that letter and published it in the newspaper showing sympathy with the refugees. However there was no hopeful thing in that letter and he emphasized that we should leave the church and give up the hunger strike. Again, we gave up the hunger strike and tried to make negotiations with the government, but had to face arrests of the refugees, who were in the church.

Stood on a great plain in the falling snow;
Ten thousand soldiers marched to and fro:
Looking for you and me, my dear, looking for you and me.

The police could not enter the church, but they constantly came inside in civil clothes and then arrested the refugees outside the church. They took them to deportation centers. We refugees had to start a hunger and thirst strike in Schubhaft. So they had to release us, because if anyone would die in the jail, that would be a problem for them.

At the same time some right-winged, racist persons came inside the church and demanded to kick the refugees out of of the church. Otherwise they would also do a hunger strike. We gave too much respect to these peoples, offered them tea and coffee and tried to talk with them. However, they didn’t want to talk with us and in the evening they had to leave the church, because it was too cold for them and they were not brave like the refugees inside.

Then again we received a letter from Mr. Schönborn, saying we should change the place and start our new political struggle in Servitenkloster. We started making negotiations with them. On the 2nd of March we shifted to Servitenkloster and when we saw the conditions in which we were going to live, we were shocked. It was a basement and looks like a stable for animals. There were no windows or ventilations. When we refused to live there, they opened some rooms on the 2nd floor, where there were still no bathrooms and kitchens. For the first 18 days nobody took care of us. No food was provided by Caritas or the representatives of the church. The refugees had to buy food with money from their own pockets. Before leaving the Votivkirche, we had had a meeting with the representatives of the church and they had told us that we would be their guests in the Kloster.

In this meeting we had agreed on the following points:

1. Refugees will be provided with legal assistance by the church.

2. Police will not enter inside the church and they will not arrest any refugee
    who is registered at Servitenkloster

3. The Monestary will be a place, where we can restart our protest again

4. This place will not be treated like camps.

But these were only broken promises. Eight days before getting any legal assistance 29 refugees started getting LOVE LETTERS from Fremdenpolizei. Refugees who went there for an interview had to sign some kind of Deportation letters.

Reality Check. Once there was a delegate from Inner Ministry and they brought forward a Megaproject for the refugees: If you return voluntarily to your country we will pay you 7000 Euros. Although the news reported that all governments warned their residents not to travel to Pakistan because it is not safe for them, is it safe for the Pakistani refugees? The refugees only replied with a simple answer: We will pay for a journey to Pakistan for your Interior minister and she goes there without security. If she comes back, we will voluntarily return to our country.

Went to a committee; they offered me a chair;
Asked me politely to return next year:
But where shall we go today, my dear, but where shall we go today?

Now, we are still struggling and fighting for our rights and we are in negotiations with the authorities. But the people who brought us to the Servitenkloster and who are responsible for our future have currently disappeared or don’t want to confront us. Two weeks ago one refugee got some mental problem, that was so serious that he became aggressive and doctors sent him to Otto Wagner hospital. He is still admitted there. Yesterday a refugee from our protest was attacked by some unknown persons. They hit him with knives and he is still in the hospital. I hope that days will come, when we get something from our struggle and that those days are not far. We are helpless but not hopeless.

Went down the harbour and stood upon the quay,
Saw the fish swimming as if they were free:
Only ten feet away, my dear, only ten feet away.

Walked through a wood, saw the birds in the trees;
They had no politicians and sang at their ease:
They weren't the human race, my dear, they weren't the human race.


Shahjahan Khan is a refugee from Pakistan and is taking part in the refugee protest for months. He is currently living in the Servitenkloster in Vienna and fighting for his rights day by day.

AutorInnen: Shahjahan Khan