In the early hours of Jan 28, Viennese residents Tina (12) and Lea (5) were deported to Georgia along with their mother; they were part of a larger repatriation that included Sona (20) and her brother Ashot (16), who were deported to Armenia.
The plight of these families gained broad public exposure thanks to the efforts of Tina’s classmates and teachers at school. About two hours prior to the deportation, activists organized via social media and drove to Zinnergasse in Simmering.
Despite having spent most of their lives here and with many friends and close family in Austria, Tina and Lea were denied residency. Their parents’ asylum applications were rejected and all appeals exhausted. This deportation has sparked controversy, straining the ruling ÖVP-Green coalition as the latter has a long tradition of championing human rights and the humanitarian right of stay, while the ÖVP has maintained its hardline stance regarding immigration and asylum.
A wide path leads to Vienna’s Zinnergasse 29, a long, barrack-like building in the no man’s land between Simmeringer Haide, the Freudenau power plant and Alberner Hafen. This was once the site of the Kardinal König Integrationshaus. Today, it is a detention center, or as some call it, “deportation prison.”
It was shortly before 1:00 in the morning when I arrived. The mood was upbeat; everyone had hurried to get there on time. Rudi Fußi (a well-known political consultant and media personality) was just getting out of the car, as Falter editor in chief Florian Klenk stood nearby filming him. Many of the girls’ classmates were already there, along with the odd politician and a handful of journalists and photographers. Soon a small VW bus began serving coffee through its window – a few good souls had brought thermos flasks and plastic cups. Many people knew each other, even if only from twitter. Hardly anyone expected to prevent the deportation, but they wanted to be there and set an example.
Around the corner were two large police cars; the officers were friendly, but determined to give no information. They were here because of “the large gathering of people,” explained one. Wasn’t the reason actually a deportation? He didn’t answer. They were not allowed to say anything. Would it be at 3:00, as we had been told? “No comment.”
Little by little, more and more people arrived, cabs rolling up again and again. At some point, someone suggested splitting into two groups. One should stay at the main entrance, the other move to the other two entrances – one 300 meters further down on Zinnergasse, the other on the smaller Margetinstraße. The father of Tina and Lea – the two who are to be deported and are currently with their mother –knows the way. He had come to say goodbye, as he will not be deported (he holds a valid work permit in Slovakia). Not a minute too soon, the group set off.
And Then the Dialogue Died
The convoy was already assembled inside the compound, waiting, as it were, in the wings. Coming from Zinnergasse, the police at first wouldn’t let us go any further – but then a brash, if not quite truthful, announcement that we were “all from the press” worked wonders. We were allowed to continue, go around the corner and see the police convoy, which was already approaching slowly. We were not allowed to get too close, as a handful of policemen blocked our way.
They didn’t really know who was to be deported and expressed understanding and appreciation that the demonstrators were there. But they had to do their job, and there was a deportation order. With common ground exhausted, the dialogue died.
Then it was time: We had to step aside, as the convoy, consisting of seven or eight police vans, started moving at a walking pace. It didn’t get far and stopped on a narrow stretch of road. It would stay there for hours – boxed in by a group of demonstrators.
If you needed to reach the other side, you had to walk around the perimeter of the compound, which took ten minutes. A sit-in was already underway there: about a dozen young people had collected garbage cans, shopping carts and bulky debris, barricading the street and sitting on the ground. They look toward the convoy; the police stare back. Only a few meters farther, a lowered barrier rail separated the two sides. The police remained impassive; there were no calls to clear the road. There was simply mutual incomprehension; The deportees sat in the cars and probably had no idea what was happening.
It remained this way for some time. More and more young people arrived. The police also received reinforcements – at first piecemeal, then entire teams in full gear showed up. Canine units were also deployed, but led away for now. Some of the demonstrators reported hostility and insults from the policemen and directed towards the two girls. It’s possible, but I personally heard nothing of the sort.
Demonstrators and Police Stand Off
Then the young protestors unfurled posters reading “Refugees welcome” and “Right to stay for all.” The entrance to the compound was soon clogged with demonstrators, followed by a single-row police cordon, which was later expanded; only the press were allowed to pass, depending on the goodwill of the officer in question. A few steps further, the sit-in was illuminated by the glaring headlights of the police cars. Their engines running, the officers were deployed in front of and behind the first car. The girls who are to be deported were no where to be seen. Demonstrators and police stood and waited. Everyone waited.
Again and again, slogans were chanted in rhythm: “Hoch die Antinationale (sic),” was one. At one point, Florian Klenk asked the apparent leaders of the police operation how things were going. None of his business, one snapped back; he only writes for a “Haislpapier” (a toiletpaper rag) anyway; other insults followed. Klenk demanded the officer’s badge number; at first he dithered, then deliberately spoke much too fast, only giving it clearly the third time. Then it was time for us to attend the briefing.
We continued to wait. Again and again, fragments of the chanting floated up from the other side of the convoy; it was actually only 100 meters away as the crow flies. Signs of life from the other protestors, who were also holding their ground. A line had long since formed at the low, green ramp on Margetinstraße, facing the front of the convoy. One of the protesters, a young boy, glued his hand onto the barrier rail.
All Wear Masks
More small talk, more waiting; the police seemed to have all the time in the world. In the meantime, hundreds of officers had arrived and the street was clogged with squad cars – regular traffic had long since been diverted. Policemen appeared with WEGA (Vienna’s SWAT team) badges and black ski masks; also some in riot gear. And the dogs were back – growling, but leashed and kept at a safe distance.
Then, at half past four, a police car with neon signs drove up. Mouth-nose-protection and two meters minimum distancing were mandatory, a friendly reminder written in green LED lights. Everyone was already wearing a mask, the notice would not have been necessary. All the officers were masked as well, even if sometimes reluctantly, as some admitted.
An Assembly “Threatening Public Order”
By now, the protestors had long since been outnumbered and divided along the access roads. The police continued to stand by. More waiting, small talk, anxiety. When would the deportation flight leave? Nobody knew. Many figured it would take at least until [Interior Minister Karl] Nehammer had his morning coffee and gave the decisive order.
Then at 4:47, an announcement came over the loudspeaker: “The Regional Police Directorate has determined that this assembly has assumed a character that threatens public order and hereby dissolves this assembly, in accordance with the provisions of the Assembly Act.” But there was no “threatening character” anywhere to be seen – everyone was peaceful; there weren’t even any drunks. The police made no effort to dissolve the gathering.
Nothing happened. We continued to wait.
Then, at five o’clock sharp, everything happened very quickly. Someone shouted an incomprehensible command. Kicks. Punches. Screams. The police pulled people away with brute force, dragging them along the asphalt. Some officers beat peaceful demonstrators; those who were struck, fell down or were caught by the bystanders. Some resisted, but only briefly. Most stepped back a short distance – that was enough, and the police closed ranks again.
“What kind of violence is this, heast?” someone shouted, and another, “Why are you hitting her?” The dogs barked aggressively, but remained leashed. A chant started up, “All Vienna hates the police!” Then the convoy started moving past the police cordon and the few remaining protesters who were standing in the way. The cars drove around the bend, stopped briefly, then turned on their blue lights and sped away, probably directly toward the airport. The protestors booed loudly in unison. Hardly anyone could grasp what has just happened. No one was seriously injured, but everyone was shaken by the disproportionate escalation.
Stunned After Punches and Kicks
The two girls – born and raised in Austria – and their mother had been deported. They were stuck in those cars for hours and did not know if they would wake up in Austria or somewhere else. There were probably others with them, whose names we didn’t know. And it could have been stopped: Up to the last minute, the Ministry of the Interior could have issued a “humanitarian right to stay,” which is intended specifically for so-called “hardship cases.”
But it didn’t happen.
Another command, and the police stood at attention. Another shout – it could have been “Dismissed!” – and they walked casually back to their cars. Some of the young people and Antifa protestors threw snowballs after them, others applauded them for their “great performance;” still others ask if they would sleep well.
The police didn’t respond to any of the provocations. The mood remained tense, but, above all, deeply disappointed. The police left, and after a few minutes of something like shock, the protestors did the same. One last interview by Puls24, then the journalists left too. Early morning traffic, snow flurries, commuters. A morning like any other for the outside world. For the deported girls, the end of their lives as they knew them. And also for the demonstrators and eyewitnesses. That night, Austria had become a good deal more like Orbán’s Hungary.
Excerpt from the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child
(1) States Parties shall take appropriate measures to ensure that a child who seeks refugee status or is considered a refugee in accordance with the applicable rules and procedures of international law or national law receives appropriate protection and humanitarian assistance in the enjoyment of the rights set forth in the present Convention or in other international instruments on human rights or on humanitarian issues to which the said States are parties, whether or not he or she is accompanied by his or her parents or another person.
A follow-up article by Florian Bayer has also appeared (in German) on zackzack.at.