Asylum activists end protest in Vienna church

VIENNA Sun Mar 3, 2013 12:39pm GMT

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VIENNA (Reuters) - Dozens of refugees demanding changes to Austria's asylum system ended a weeks-long occupation of a Vienna church on Sunday, defusing a standoff with authorities.

The activists took up an offer from Roman Catholic Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn - now in Rome for a conclave to elect a new Pope - and moved to a nearby abbey, the Catholic social charity Caritas said.

Around 40 refugees, some of them on hunger strike, had moved from a tent camp in a park into the Votive Church before the Christmas holidays in December.

"The church was an important place for our protest," Adalat Khan, a spokesman for the refugees, said in a statement. "Now we are happy to continue our efforts to improve the conditions for the refugees and to provide a secure future for all in a new, open place and in a normal housing situation."

Austria has ruled out changes to its asylum system, which officials said compared well with other European countries.

The refugees - mostly from Pakistan and Afghanistan - want the right to work while they are waiting, sometimes for years, to find out whether they can stay in Austria.

They also complain of overcrowding in Austria's main refugee camp, the fact that they can be moved between camps without consultation and the fact that Austria keeps their fingerprints.

Asylum-seekers in Austria are allowed to seek seasonal work such as fruit harvesting after three months, but may not seek permanent employment until their asylum request is approved.

About 80 percent of asylum cases are resolved within eight months, the government has said.

The number of asylum applications in Austria rose 21 percent to 14,416 in 2011, government statistics show. Almost a quarter of applicants were from Afghanistan, followed by people from Russia, Pakistan and Somalia.

(Editing by David Holmes)

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