Refugees in Austria view new far-right leaders as existential threat

One refugee, a writer from Syria, explains his worries about the incoming Austrian government.

Head of Austrian Freedom Party (FPO) Heinz-Christian Strache addresses a news conference in Vienna, Austria, April 25, 2017. (photo credit: REUTERS/HEINZ-PETER BADER)
Head of Austrian Freedom Party (FPO) Heinz-Christian Strache addresses a news conference in Vienna, Austria, April 25, 2017.
In the view of Syrian refugee writer, Tha'er Nashaf, it's a simple equation: Heinz-Christian Strache, the leader of Austria's far-right Freedom Party is to Muslim refugees what Adolf Hitler was to German Jews in the 1930s.
The Freedom Party polled a strong second in Austria's election Sunday - winning 27.4 percent of the votes - and will likely become the coalition partner of newly-elected Chancellor Sebastian Kurz's People's Party, which tallied 31.4 percent of the vote. Nashaf envisions Kurz working together with Strache against refugees. The former swung to the hard right during the campaign and won by embracing many of Strache's themes and positions.
"I am so worried by Strache," Nashaf said in a phone interview from Vienna.
"Everything can be expected from him. His is the other face of the Nazi party. He plays on the emotions of the Austrian people, the same as Hitler was doing before the second world war. Hitler stood on stage and spoke in a high voice and played with the minds of the Germans and Austrians and was so successful. He led them to hell."
It is not hard to understand why Muslim refugees see Strache, who has also raised concerns among Jewish organizations, as an existential threat. Strache told a ralliers at the height of the campaign: "No, Islam is not a part of Austria." His campaign literature depicted immigrants as criminals. According to the website DW, he told several thousand party loyalists earlier this year that Austria should "quickly put an end to the policy of Islamization…otherwise we Austrians, we Europeans will come to a quick end." He said Austria needs to strive not for zero immigration but for "minus immigration" to be achieved by deporting "illegal individuals and criminals."
Nashaf, who arrived in Austria in 2015, when the number of asylum seekers peaked at 85,500, said: "Just like Hitler targeted Jews, Strache targets immigrants and refugees. We hear the same arguments to crowd people behind him. Hitler said that the Jews destroy the country and control the economy. There are only ten or twelve thousand Jews in Austria and Strache can't say 'we have to fight the Jews'. But now there are refugees and Strache plays on the refugees. And he's successful. The new Austrian generation has been affected by his speech, by his call to fight the foreign people in the country."
The election results may directly impact Nashaf's future. He has been living in limbo with his asylum application under review for more than two years. "I don't have residency or international protection until now. And now I face Strache and Kurz. If I had a chance before the election then now maybe I don't have a chance. Maybe I'll have to leave the country."
Nashaf is skeptical that Austrian courts will take the side of the refugees as the government turns up the heat. "I feel that the courts and the judiciary will be affected by the atmosphere of the government." It will be a cruel twist if Nashaf is forced from his home once again.
In 2007, he fled Syria amid threats against his life after he wrote articles critical of the Assad regime in Lebanese newspapers. He also wrote against Hezbollah and the Assad regime's alliance with Iran.
Nashaf relocated to Cairo, where he worked for a Syrian opposition television channel. It was during this time that he, courageously, wrote articles calling for peace with Israel. Under the Mubarak regime, which was a bitter enemy of Assad, he felt protected. But after Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi seized power in 2013, Egypt steadily changed its policy in favor of Assad and Nashaf was advised by Egyptian security to cease his work and then pressured to leave. He moved to Turkey for a few months but felt unsafe there due to the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood and ISIS.
In 2015, he paid smugglers to take a dangerous journey in a suffocating van and crowded raft to Greece. He traveled through Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary to Vienna.
When he arrived, refugees were not despised as they are today, he says. "I wonder what happened in this election. Why Austrians who said two years ago 'welcome to refugees' and received them at the train station and border changed their position. Why did Strache get so many votes? It seems that a lot of people are very afraid of refugees now but there have been no terrorist operations in Austria. I think people here and in Europe support the right because they are afraid the refugees will compete with them in work and the economy. Also, they want to keep their nationality and are afraid it will be changed by foreign people."
During the campaign, Strache called for eliminating financial assistance to those who have been granted asylum and he has attacked Caritas, a Christian charity that helps Nashaf and other asylum seekers. Kurz, for his part, called for reducing the assistance to those with asylum status. Nashaf's prediction is that under a Kurz-Strache government the payments would first be reduced, then eliminated entirely. "This will threaten the refugees and give Kurz and Strache's supporters the feeling they are doing something for them." Kurz campaigned on the slogan of putting "Austrians first" again.
Nashaf fears the government will make it impossible for immigrants to bring family members still in their home countries or in other countries to Austria. Refugees are also worried the government may take steps against the wearing of the hijab women use to cover their hair as a follow up to a ban imposed last year on face veiling that was backed by Kurz. There are also fears that refugees will be required to know German at a very high level in order to get Austrian nationality.
Social media reaction among refugees to the election reflects alarm, Nashaf said. "Some people with good education are saying Hitler has come back and others are saying Hitler has come back without the marches. People are afraid of new restrictions. Some people wrote that we have to fight peacefully to stay in this country. Others wrote that the election wasn't a vote for Kurz and Strache, it was a vote against Muslims, Arabs and refugees."