January 03, 2017
For two decades, Iranian Baha’is, Jews, Zoroastrians and Christians have had a special route to enter the United States as refugees, going through a center near Vienna. But the Austrian government has now shut that down as a result of the Trump visa ban on Iranians.
Austria also canceled 300 transit visas for Iranians fleeing religious persecution at home.
For two decades, Austria has been acting as the go-between for refugees from Iran who have a prospect of admittance to the United States. The program began originally as an endeavor by the late US Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey to help Jews and Evangelical Christians out of the Soviet Union. After the demise of the Soviet Union, Lautenberg had the program and the Vienna camp refocused on Iran, which also makes other religious minorities in Iran eligible for refugee status, most notably Baha’is.
Last week, around 300 hopeful applicants were getting ready to travel from Iran to Austria with documents that would allow them to stay there for about six months. The stay itself hardly rates raves, given there is little to do but trudge through the asylum application process with help from a local NGO, go to the US embassy for interviews, and bite one’s nails while waiting for official approval from the United States come summertime. It was a nerve-wrecking experience for many.
No longer, though. “US authorities told us that the onward trip for people to the USA, who received visas from Austrian authorities as part of the program, would be put on hold for now,“ Thomas Schnoll, the Austrian Foreign Ministry spokesman, told The Associated Press. The message reportedly arrived several days before Trump signed the decree on Friday.
The original, leaked draft of Trump’s order said the ban on visas for Iranians (and nationals of six other countries) would exempt members of minority faiths. But that clause was dropped when the final executive order was signed—presumably because officials belatedly realized that would make the order a ban on Muslims, not a ban on all nationals of a country.
The Foreign Ministry in Vienna said it has been trying to contact the 300 applicants to inform them that they can’t come to Austria after all. But so far, they’ve only reached 100 people. The Foreign Ministry in Vienna spent the weekend searching through its records for airline bookings in order to track down these remaining applicants and put a last-minute stop to their quest for refuge.
Three Iranians (one elderly couple and one young woman) were left stranded at the airport in Vienna Saturday, despite having valid travel documents and tickets for flights to the US. The woman took a flight back to Iran, while the elderly couple spent the night in Vienna.
Meanwhile, Schnoll has said it is “legally impossible” for Austria to accept the Iranian asylum seekers in the US’s stead. The tough line doesn’t just come as a response to’the Trump order. Austria, strained by 2015’s influx of Middle Eastern refugees, has been introducing caps and stricter security measures ever since. It was never interested in being more than a short-term transit point for the Iranians.
As for the estimated 30 Iranian applicants who are already in Austria on short-term visas, their fate is uncertain.
Austria’s government, like several other European countries, hasn’t made a statement condemning Trump’s actions yet. German Chancellor Angela Merkel had her spokesman come out Sunday and denounce Trump’s unjustifiable “general suspicion against people of a certain origin or a certain religion.” But most of Europe stands mute for the obvious reason that Europe is even more anti-refugee than the Trump Administration.