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Austria: Arson attacks against Romani families from Romania

11.3.2016 20:38
The flag of Austria.
The flag of Austria.

Unidentified perpetrators set fire to the tents of Romani families from Romania in the Upper Austrian city of Linz at the beginning of March. Fortunately, no one was injured in that incident.

The March incident was the third such arson attack against a Romani family since the beginning of the year. The victimized families have lost everything they own as a result of these attacks.

Police are investigating the incidents as ones of "minor" property damage nonetheless. For the time being the search for the perpetrators has been unsuccessful.

After the most recent attack, the Bettellobby Oberösterreich (the Upper Austrian Lobby for Begging), said the arson attacks are targeting specific families who have been begging on the streets of Linz for some time. Most of the people begging come from Linz's sister city of Brașov in Transylvania (called Kronstadt in German).

Austrian Police have not yet reported any bigger problems being caused by the begging. The city has now provided the arson victims with emergency accommodation.

The Austrian Romani organization Romano Centro has welcomed the very stern condemnation of the attacks expressed by Mayor Klaus Luger. Romano Centro has also pointed out that on the morning of the most recent attack, someone used the city's official website to denounce the Romani people for begging, to publish the exact location of their campsite, and to call for it to be cleared.

The tents were set on fire on the afternoon of the same day the city's website was used to call for the Romani people's campsite to be cleared. According to nonprofit organizations in Linz, approximately 100-150 Romani people from Romania live there annually in improvised conditions.

One-third of the Romani people living that way are children. The organizations say the Romani people come to Austria because they are discriminated against in Romania.

There is a lack of jobs for them and they face going hungry in their own country. As citizens of an EU Member State, they have the legal status of "tourists" in Austria.

As such, they have no legal entitlement to emergency accommodation in the winter. There are, therefore, forced to sleep outside in temporary dwellings.

Attacks were preceded by city banning and criminalizing begging

According to the Lobby for Begging, these arson attacks in Upper Austria are a consequence of the denunciations and verbal attacks that have been conducted against Romani people who beg there:  "Gossip using terms such as 'commercial', 'organized' or 'criminal' has deprived these people of any legitimacy, even though their begging is just a reaction to their poverty and social exclusion," the organization asserts. Government authorities's responses mostly consist of banning begging, criminalizing it, and expelling those involved in it.

Expulsion frequently just further complicates the lives of begging families. At the same time, such an official response creates fertile ground for violent attacks against them.

Even though police frequently expel begging persons from cities and justify the expulsion by saying "commercial" begging is banned, criminal proceedings are rarely launched in such cases. Very few foreign nationals have ever actually been convicted of organized begging in Austria.

It would seem that the Austrian Police either do not have evidence to back up their claims that what they call the begging "business" actually is mafia-organized, or that they are not really doing their best to prosecute these crimes. After this year's repeated arson attacks, a local charity is now raising the alarm and money for the victims and is calling on the inhabitants of Linz to provide them with sleeping bags, clothing and food.

Director Frank Kehrer has publicly expressed his consternation over how these people are being treated. Kehrer says he believes the recent attacks show the threat exists that the atmosphere in society may "lead to inexcusable crimes".

He also pointed out that his organization and others are already operating a contact point that provides advice in the Romani people's mother tongue to those who beg. They can also get groceries, clothing and hygienic supplies there, as well as an opportunity to take a shower and eat.

Will the cities' social partnership solve the situation?

In a statement issued about the most recent arson attack, the Lobby for Begging is seeking new legislative arrangements with regard to homeless persons from abroad. They believe international partnership must not be restricted just to tourism and trade, but should also address social issues.

The Lobby for Begging believes universities in both Brașov and Linz should analyze the situation of impoverished persons in Brașov and draft an economic and social concept for addressing that situation in collaboration with churches, the police and state institutions. They believe such a concept should facilitate impoverished persons finding work in their home countries.

Representatives of the organization believe more immediate measures should "relieve acute distress, initiate a serious dialogue with experts and stakeholders, lift the ban on begging, and create mid-term and long-term prospects for the lives of the dispossessed people from our sister city of Brașov." The organization believes Linz could become an example of good practice and a model for all of Europe if it were to take such action.

"Many European cities are confronted with migration motivated by poverty, but only some manage to hold a factual discussion about the causes and consequences of that migration and the possible ways out of this situation. Instead, there is a competition to see who can issue the strictest bans so that those involved travel somewhere else," the organization says in its statement released in response to the third arson attack this year.

"Such competition may move the problem elsewhere, but it will not solve it," the Lobby for Begging warns. The organization was awarded the Human Rights Award for Special Merits in 2014 by the Austrian League of Human Rights. 

Markus Pape, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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