Austrians march against xenophobia

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The Independent Online
ARMED with candles and fireworks, and to the accompaniment of rock music, tens of thousands of Austrians will today march through the centre of Vienna in a protest against the alarming rise of xenophobia in the country.

The target of their protest will be Jorg Haider, the populist leader of the far-right Freedom Party, who, on Monday, will begin collecting signatures for a controversial petition calling for tough new laws to halt immigration into Austria. Politicians, artists and priests will join forces in the rally, which, in addition to saying 'no' to Mr Haider, is also intended to demonstrate solidarity with the some 700,000 foreigners already living in the country.

'Instead of being taken in by simplistic xenophobic rhetoric, we want people to see that most Austrians are not against foreigners and that, in fact, we can all get along together,' said Andrea Gansthaler, a member of the Social Democratic Party, one of the main organisers of the protest. 'It is time for prejudices to be put aside and for common sense to prevail.'

Those behind today's march expect it will attract at least 100,000 people, putting it on a par with the wave of similar anti-racism demonstrations that have recently been held in neighbouring Germany.

But no matter how many people attend, Mr Haider is expected to have no difficulty attracting the 100,000 signatures he needs for his petition to compel parliament to review its immigration policies and possibly pave the way for a referendum on the issue. Indeed, according to an opinion poll published in this week's News magazine, more than 800,000 Austrians appear set to sign the petition which, in addition to calling for a halt to immigration, also seeks the deportation of illegal immigrants and limits on the number of non-German speaking children in Austria's classrooms.

'Despite the massive publicity campaign against us, we think we have touched a raw nerve among the people - and that up to a million will support us,' said Harald Vilimsky, a spokesman for the Freedom Party, the third largest party in Austria.

Popular discontent against immigrants has grown considerably since the lifting of the Iron Curtain in 1989 prompted tens of thousands of east Europeans to seek out a new life in Austria. Over the past four years, the number of legal immigrants in the country has risen from 350,000 to 600,000, while the number of illegal immigrants is currently estimated at between 100,000 and 400,000. The problem has been compounded by the influx of 65,000 refugees from the fighting in the former Yugoslavia, adding to the pressure on Austria's job market, housing and school system.

'If we do not act now, we could have another Rostock on our hands,' said Mr Vilimsky, referring to the north-eastern German town in which right-wing mobs attacked a hostel for refugees for several days running last summer. 'Until now, there has been no widespread violence against foreigners here - and we want to prevent that happening.'

The government has so far refused to bow to such blackmail, insisting that, even if Mr Haider's petition forces parliament to discuss immigration, it will not compel it to make policy changes. Sensitive to the growing disquiet, however, the government has already announced plans to introduce a quota system for immigrants later this year.

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