Hazel Southam - Journalist

'Isis told us that we were sinners and had to leave'

Ahmed has his face up against the iron bars of the asylum reception centre in the village of Traiskirchen in Austria.
He fled Iraq when Isis told his family to leave. They were fishmongers and had sold their ware to Americans, among others. ‘They told us that we were sinners, that we had to leave,’ says Ahmed. ‘It gave my father a stroke and now he is dead. My sister is in Greece. My brother is in Serbia. I am here.’
The 25-year-old is one of nearly 5,000 people at the reception centre in Traiskirchen, which lies about 30 miles outside Vienna. Every asylum seeker wishing to enter the EU via the Balkans must pass through here. The centre is an old Army barracks that was intended to house around 1,000 people. For decades it has been home to refugees from one country or another: Hungary, Czechoslovakia and now around the world, though many are from Syria, or like Ahmed, Iraq.
Today, 4,800 people are housed in this imposing cream-painted building in conditions that Amnesty International declared ‘inhumane’ and ‘shameful’ last week. The head of the Austrian branch of Amnesty, Heinz Pazelt, told the BBC: ‘They are just left alone and have to survive there. They are the last ones who get to eat and this is a really heavy human rights violation of the convention for children.’
Last month, the Austrian Chancellor, Werner Faymann, described the migrant crisis as ‘Europe’s biggest challenge’. He said: ‘Much has been done by the federal states to create more space, but it was not enough.’
The camp at Traiskirchen is run by ORS, a Swiss firm, reputed to have earned some 21m Euros (£15m) from the camp in the last four years. When the numbers coming to Austria filled the camp, people began to be housed in the offices of the neighbouring police academy. Clothes hang out of its windows to dry in the sun.
But more people arrive every day.
Last week, on one day alone, 86 people were dumped by traffickers out of the back of a lorry onto a motorway outside Vienna. They too were brought to Traiskirchen. All this means that Ahmed and 1,500 others are camping outside the building in tents designed for family holidays. It looks like a festival without any music.
‘I came here on a ship,’ says Ahmed. ‘It was like death. The ship capsized and the Greek police rescued us. Then they told me to leave, so I walked to Austria. It took two weeks. I didn’t sleep for a week. I didn’t drink anything for two days. I walked at night so nobody could see me. It wasn’t a good life. But I wasn’t afraid. I was peaceful, because if I’d stayed in Iraq there would have been death for me. All I want is to live peacefully.’
Austria has the highest number of asylum seekers per capita in Europe. About 80,000 are expected to arrive this year alone, adding to 28,000 in 2014 and 17,000 in 2013.
Asylum requests for Austria – a country with a population of just eight million people – rose nearly 180 per cent in the first five months of 2015. Many are coming overland: they follow a route worked by traffickers that brings people through Turkey, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia, Romani and Hungary.
Over the weekend, photos emerged of hundreds of asylum seekers in the Macedonian town of Gevgelija, struggling to board a train that would take them to the Serbian border. There have been protests both for and against asylum seekers in Traiskirchen, a village that lies in the heart of Austria’s wine-growing region, and which is surrounded by vineyards.
On two sides, vines run down from the mountains to the red-brick outer defensive walls of the reception centre itself. But according to Mary, a 21-year-old student who works as a waitress in a vineyard wine bar in the village, the views of the villagers have been ‘misreported’.
She says: ‘The people who are here are very poor. It doesn’t matter if they are here because they want a better life or have had threats against their lives. They are poor. They have to sleep outside and have no food.’ Ahmed confirms that he receives no food at the camp, but that people from the village bring food to them each day.
‘The government wants to show that it’s an overwhelming problem, a mass influx of people,’ says Christoph Riedl, CEO of the NGO Diakonie Fluchtingsdiest, which works with asylum seekers. ‘This is nonsense. Austria is a rich country and we can solve this problem.’
The conditions at Traiskirchen are also condemned by Dr Jutta Henner, Director of the Bible Society in Austria. It is one of the leading charities working with refugees both inside the centre and around the country.
‘It is really shocking to see people in tents at Traiskirchen,’ she says. ‘It is a difficult political issue, because the question is if 80,000 come this year and it continues next year, there is a real challenge of how we integrate people into a rich country.
‘But to keep people in poor conditions just to show that they shouldn’t come here is to put suffering on the shoulders of poor people. I feel ashamed.’


About Hazel

Hazel Southam is an award-winning journalist who reports on religious affairs, international development and the environment. She has covered four G8 Summits.

She wrote for The Sunday and Daily Telegraph for 10 years. Her work has also appeared in The Guardian, The Independent, The Independent on Sunday, The Daily Mail and The Evening Standard.

Reporting assignments have taken her to places including Bosnia, Zimbabwe, Mongolia, Albania, Nagorno-Karabakh, Senegal and the Arctic Circle.

In the UK, she has also delivered media training to the MOD and leading businesses.

Contact Hazel