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RIGHTS-AUSTRIA: Thousands of Migrants Take to Hunger Strikes

Pavol Stracansky

VIENNA, Sep 30 2009 (IPS) - Human rights activists in Austria are calling for an overhaul of a detention system for migrants and asylum seekers they claim breaches human rights, following the death of a hunger-striking migrant in police cells.

Indian Gagandeep Singh was found dead in his cell at a police detention centre in Vienna earlier this month four weeks into a hunger strike.

Initial autopsy results have suggested he died of a heart attack, but tests are now being carried out to determine whether the cardiac arrest was linked to his hunger strike.

Rights groups have voiced serious doubts over the medical care he received while in detention, and claim the case has highlighted grave shortcomings in the way migrants are treated by Austrian authorities.

“The way the Austrian authorities implement the current detention system is a breach of human rights,” Heinz Patzelt, head of Amnesty International in Austria, told IPS.

“There are too many people in detention and for far too long. People should only be put in detention as a very last resort when their asylum process is coming right to an end and there is a real fear that they will disappear or flee,” he added.

Under Austrian law, asylum seekers and migrants can be kept in preventive detention for as long as ten months when there are fears that they could disappear underground while their asylum or deportation arrangements are being processed.

Rights groups say that although there are clear international guidelines that preventive detention should only be used where completely unavoidable and should not include minors and people with special needs, Austrian authorities interpret the law broadly. They say many migrants are put in detention for lengthy periods, including children and those with special needs.

They also claim that conditions in preventive detention are worse than in normal prisons.

Prof. Manfred Nowak, head of the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute of Human Rights in Vienna, told IPS: “The facilities are only police jails, often dating back to the 19th century, and they were originally designed to serve a punitive purpose. They are not suitable as long-term detention centres. Open detention facilities where people have the chance to move around freely and do sports and so on are needed.

“The bad conditions in detention centres are also part of the reason why people go on hunger strikes. There are always people on hunger strikes and this is an issue the government needs to take more seriously.”

And they say that detainees often suffer from restricted access to legal services and proper medical care.

Roland Schonbauer, spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Vienna, told IPS: “Many asylum seekers are put behind bars without being aware of their possibilities for legal recourse to a quality check on their administrative detentions and are not aware of why they are in detention.

“There is also a lack of communication, and asylum seekers we have spoken to have said that there are situations where people cannot explain to doctors and other medical staff their problems. This is down to language barriers and a lack of resources.

“If people in detention have no information or are not told that they may have the possibility to be freed from preventive detention, then some of them may become desperate and resort to something like hunger striking.”

The Austrian Interior Ministry has said that Gagandeep Singh, who had been in detention since the beginning of August when authorities discovered that he had entered the country four years ago with false identity papers and had lied about his age, was carefully monitored by doctors.

Officials were also quick to rebuff criticism of the preventive detention system and Interior Minister Maria Fekter – who is described by local political commentators and analysts as a hardliner on immigration issues – was quick to point out that preventive detention was seldom used in cases involving families and children.

According to the Interior Ministry there were 5,398 asylum applicants in preventive detention last year, and 1,549 of those had gone on hunger strike. It said that 1,223 of the 3,923 people who had been in preventive detention between the beginning of January and the end of August this year had gone on hunger strikes.

Rights groups have warned that the problems with preventive detention are likely to get worse next year as Fekter plans to bring in new legislation on migrants and asylum seekers.

Under the new legislation there would be a broader use of preventive detention for migrants and asylum seekers facing deportation, including provision to detain them at the start of the process to have them deported home or to a third country – a process rights groups warn can take many months. Migrants and asylum seekers would also have to undergo x-rays to determine their age, and new detention facilities would be built to accommodate more detainees.

They say the new laws will only keep more people in detention for longer, and have called for far-reaching reforms of the detention system and its use to make sure basic human rights for migrants and asylum seekers are upheld.

“What is needed to improve the situation is the establishment of a system where detention is used only as a last resort and not for children or people with special needs; full and fair access to counselling for asylum seekers in detention; and improvement of conditions in detention, including no language or other barriers to medical care or counselling,” said Schonbauer.

But many rights activists remain sceptical that anything will improve in the near future, despite this month’s death of the hunger striker, because of the political climate in Austria.

Immigration has become a central political debate, and far-right parties the Freedom Party and the Alliance for the Future of Austria who have run election campaigns based around hard-line anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric have made large gains recently in local and national elections.

A number of recent polls have also shown a majority of people – as many as 63 percent in one study – believe rising crime numbers are connected to immigration.

“What we need is a completely different political climate and political approach to migration,” Nowak said.

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