Built to house 1,800, the federally outsourced Traiskirchen facility, 20 kilometers south of Vienna, is now a temporary home to 4,500 refugees.
Until several weeks ago, more than 1,000 people were sleeping on the open lawn, bracing through rain storms and heat-waves alike without any shelter, a situation criticized even by Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner, who was largely seen as responsible for the inadequate response.
The United Nations and Amnesty International went a step further and describe conditions as “inhumane” and “degrading.”
Images of people sleeping in the open shocked Austrians, said Dunja Gharwal, one of many volunteers independently helping refugees in Traiskirchen. “Austria is a very rich country. We really sit here in abundance, and this is not necessary,” she said, calling it her country’s duty to welcome refugees.
On a recent afternoon, locals parked outside the gates of the former school and unloaded jackets and sneakers in all sizes, as well as thick coats, hats and gloves for the approaching winter to clothe those staying at the refugee camp.
Close to 7,000 volunteers have signed up with Caritas to help in recent months. “Those aren’t just people who’ve filled in on a weekend,” spokesperson Margit Draxl said. “It’s been going on for months, and without them, this help wouldn’t be possible.”
Some bosses allowed volunteers to take paid leave if they wanted to help at camps. Big conglomerates are initiating vocational training programs for young refugees. Austrian singers and bands are organizing a free concert called “Voices of Refugees” in Vienna to collect donations for asylum seekers. Austrian state broadcaster ORF recently set up a website aimed at linking Austrians with vacant apartments or houses with refugees and the organizations that assist them.
“There’s an almost unbelievable readiness to help,” Draxl said.