VIENNA Austria ruled out changes to its asylum system on Wednesday, dismissing demands from dozens of refugees camped out in protest in a Vienna church, including some who have been on hunger strike.
Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner said Austria's treatment of asylum seekers compared well with other European countries and there would be no structural changes.
"I see no need," she told the Austria Press Agency.
The refugees, who are being supported by agencies including Catholic social charity Caritas, 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 overcrowded living conditions in Austria's main refugee camp in Traiskirchen, Lower Austria, the fact that they can be moved between camps without consultation, and the fact that Austria keeps their fingerprints.
On Wednesday, they told reporters they had no intention of abandoning their weeks-long protest or of losing visibility by leaving the Votivkirche in central Vienna to move to alternative shelter offered by Caritas and the government.
"If the politicians wanted to solve the problem, they could solve it in a few days and everything would be fine," Muhamed Numan, a 24-year-old protester from Pakistan, told Reuters in the bitterly cold church.
Some 40 refugees - mostly from Pakistan and Afghanistan - who had been on hunger strike, some since before Christmas, broke their fast on Tuesday night but said they were merely pausing for about a week to regain strength for negotiations.
Asylum-seekers are now allowed to seek seasonal work such as fruit harvesting after three months, but may not seek permanent employment until their asylum request is approved.
Some 80 percent of asylum cases are resolved within eight months, Mikl-Leitner said.
The number of asylum applications in Austria rose 21 percent to 1,415 last year. Almost a quarter were from refugees from Afghanistan, with significant numbers of applications also received from Russians, Pakistanis and Syrians.
According to the U.N. refugee agency, the UNHCR, there was a 20 percent increase in requests for asylum in industrialised nations in 2011. The United States, France and Germany get the most applications.
(Reporting by Georgina Prodhan; Editing by Alison Williams)
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