United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1997 - Austria, 1 January 1997, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6a8bb24.html [accessed 25 February 2017]
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A total of 6,991 asylum seekers filed applications in Austria during 1996, an 18 percent increase over the 5,920 persons seeking asylum the previous year. However, these figures represent a substantial decrease from the 16,238 asylum seekers entering Austria in 1992, the year a restrictive asylum law entered into force. During 1996, the largest numbers of asylum seekers came from Iraq (22.7 percent), followed by the present Yugoslavia (14.7 percent). Significant numbers of asylum seekers also came from Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkey during the year. Of the 9,090 persons whose cases were adjudicated during 1996, 716 individuals, or 7.9 percent of the total, were granted asylum, a substantial decrease from 1995's approval rate of 12.5 percent. Some 8,032 persons (88.3 percent) were denied asylum, and an additional 342 individuals (3.8 percent) withdrew their applications. A breakdown of the approval rates by nationality was unavailable for 1996. The applications of about 4,000 asylum seekers remained pending at year's end. The Asylum Procedure On several occasions during the past two years, the Austrian government has announced its intention to revise the aliens and asylum laws, but no legislation had been passed by the end of 1996. In the absence of any legal changes, the asylum procedure continued to be governed by the 1991 Asylum Act, in force since June 1, 1992. The 1992 Aliens Act, which provides guidelines for the entry, residence, detention, and expulsion of foreigners, also has direct relevance to the situation of asylum seekers in Austria. While the Asylum and Aliens Acts have succeeded in significantly reducing the flow of asylum seekers into Austria, they have been criticized for failing to meet international standards of refugee protection. According to Article 2 of the Asylum Act, a refugee shall not be granted asylum in Austria if he or she was already safe from persecution in another country. Austria considers third countries safe if they have signed the UN Refugee Convention, honor the nonrefoulement principle, have an asylum procedure, and have a UNHCR office. All countries sharing a border with Austria meet these requirements, according to the Austrian interior ministry. Although these and other countries are presumed to offer due process and protection to asylum seekers and refugees, the Austrian government says that admissibility to its asylum procedure and the return of persons to safe third countries are decided on an individual basis. Criticism of Procedure Critics contend that the wording of the safe third country law has contributed to poor decision making. The Austrian authorities only review whether asylum seekers were safe at the time they were transiting third countries. By focusing exclusively on past conditions, the authorities fail to address more relevant questions about whether asylum seekers would be admitted to the asylum procedure in the third country and afforded protection when returned there. If the law were amended to apply to present conditions of safety, critics of the current law say that the authorities would be required to look far more specifically at an asylum seeker's actual prospects for filing an asylum application and for securing effective protection in the third country. Critics of the Austrian safe third country law have also expressed concern over the authorities' application of the general criteria for deciding whether a country is safe. In an October 1994 report, UNHCR said that "analysis of the administrative practice reveals that mere transit through or a simple, short-term sojourn in such countries as...Turkey, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, or Iran will as a general rule lead to the rejection of an asylum application." Humanitarian organizations expressed similar concerns regarding Austrian practices during a USCR site visit in April 1996. One cited a case involving 12 Iranian nationals deported from Germany to Austria on safe third country grounds in February. Although the German authorities informed their Austrian counterparts that people in the group had asked for asylum in Germany, the Austrian authorities reportedly did not follow up on these requests. Instead they arranged the group's deportation to Ukraine, despite Ukraine's not having signed the 1951 Refugee Convention. This was only averted when one in the group intentionally cut himself with a knife badly enough to require a doctor, leading the Austrian Airlines pilot to refuse to take the deportees against their will. The wounded person was hospitalized, and all were then permitted to file asylum applications. Only claimants arriving directly from the country of persecution are permitted to enter Austria legally and are granted temporary residence permits, provided they file asylum applications within seven days of arrival. Although the Austrian interior ministry contends that cases in which asylum seekers merely transited third countries should be considered as direct travel to Austria, in practice asylum seekers reportedly have been denied access to the territory and asylum procedure because they spent some hours in the transit area of another country's airport. Asylum seekers arriving overland are also routinely denied entry to Austria, even when their travel from the state of persecution to Austria has been uninterrupted. As a result of these strict admissibility requirements, some 90 percent of all asylum applicants in Austria have entered the country illegally. They therefore have been subject to the provisions of the Aliens Act and hence the authority of the Aliens Police. According to humanitarian observers, however, there are no clear administrative criteria or instructions to clarify how the provisions of the Aliens Act apply to this vast majority of asylum applicants. This has meant that efforts to implement the Aliens Act (enforcement of orders to detain and deport) often have been made irrespective of a person's oral request to seek asylum or without regard to the status of an application already filed. For those who have managed to file asylum applications with the Federal Asylum Office, the fact that they were awaiting decisions on their cases has not entitled them to legal status to remain in Austria. While the Aliens Police generally have permitted applicants to remain while awaiting first-instance decisions of the Federal Asylum Office, no uniform practice exists concerning the right to remain for second-instance decisions and court appeals. The lack of secure legal status for most asylum seekers in Austria has meant that on average at least 11 percent of all applicants were detained while their applications were decided in 1996. This figure was reported to be considerably higher, however, in the federal state of Burgenland that borders on Hungary. There, the majority of applicants reportedly have spent the determination procedure in detention pending deportation. Accommodation and support for asylum seekers in Austria also continued to be problematic during 1996. Since the 1991 Asylum Act entered into force, the number of asylum applicants denied government assistance during the asylum procedure has increased markedly. According to a legal advisor to asylum seekers and refugees in Austria, the lack of support, together with the poor prospects for many to obtain legal status, have led many asylum seekers to leave Austria for other countries. In December 1995, the Catholic and Protestant Churches reported that the decrease in government assistance has also led to a growing population of homeless asylum seekers. On May 20, 1996, USCR wrote to the Austrian ambassador to the United States regarding statistics published by the interior ministry indicating that 1,787 persons awaiting deportation went on hunger strike in 1995, and that 33 detainees attempted suicide. USCR expressed disquiet over reports of mistreatment of asylum seekers and overcrowding in some detention facilities. "The high number of hunger strikers and suicide attempts," USCR said, raised concern that Austria lacked "adequate measures to establish that prospective deportees did not face serious danger upon return to their home countries." (Mounting criticism of both laws and their implementation from UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations is credited with bringing a revision of current asylum law to the legislative agenda in 1997. In early March, draft revisions of the Aliens and Asylum Acts were under preparation for publication and expert evaluation.)Readmission Agreements Austria has signed readmission agreements with the Benelux countries, former Czechoslovakia (implemented by both the Czech Republic and Slovakia), France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Liechtenstein, Poland, Switzerland, Slovenia, and Tunisia. These agreements do not refer to asylum seekers and refugees but to foreigners in general. Austria also has signed a bilateral protocol with Romania that applies solely to the return of nationals of both states. On April 28, 1995, Austria signed the Schengen Agreement, which it expects to implement by July 1997. When Austria begins its implementation, the Schengen Agreement, rather than the older bilateral readmission agreements, will regulate the transfer of asylum seekers between Austria and other member states. To prepare for the Schengen Agreement's implementation, Austria agreed in 1996 to establish closer police cooperation on its borders with Germany and Italy. On November 14, Interior Minister Casper Einem announced that, beginning in January 1997, the army would increase its surveillance of Austria's borders with the Czech and Slovak Republics. The Schengen Agreement requires its signatories to increase border surveillance at the treaty area's external borders to prepare for the suppression of border checks between member states. Bosnians In May 1996, Interior Minister Einem announced that Bosnians granted temporary protection in Austria would be permitted to remain until August 1997. An estimated 7,000 Bosnian refugees repatriated voluntarily from Austrian during 1996. At the end of the year, about 11,400 Bosnians remained in Austria with temporary protected status. In addition, about 62,000 Bosnians holding Austrian residence permits (not necessarily permanent) remained in the country. No concrete repatriation plans for Bosnians residing in Austria had been agreed upon at year's end.