A football club set up for asylum seekers in Vienna has found itself pressurised by the Austrian state. Paul Joyce explains
“FC Sans Papiers is a fight against racism and discrimination using modern and elegant means – sport,” explains its president Dr Di-Tutu Bukasa, who founded the side in 2002. Inspired by the French political movement of the same name, the Viennese team offers asylum seekers who lack an Austrian residence permit the chance to play regular lower-league football.
By enabling its predominantly Nigerian players to present themselves in a positive light, the club aims to facilitate their integration into Austrian society. Offering a structured existence to migrants who are legally unable to work also protects them from drifting into criminality. “In a society such as Austria that is visibly hostile towards Africans, the young people should never lose their self-belief,” Bukasa argues.
He describes the response to FC Sans Papiers by Viennese football fans as “astonishingly positive”. Although racist abuse from opposing supporters is still commonplace, his club has created new opportunities to communicate with the local youth. Success has also come on the pitch – the team has twice been invited to Vienna town hall to celebrate winning its division.
But after Austria tightened its asylum laws at the start of 2010, FC Sans Papiers have been increasingly targeted by immigration police. Eleven of their players have been deported in recent months.
On April 29, over 100 police officers stormed the pitch during a Sans Papiers training match and detained their players. Although 14 squad members were subsequently released, two Nigerians were taken away – Vincent E, who had lived in Austria since July 2004, and Cletus B, the club’s captain and coach, who had been in Vienna for eight years. Talented enough to play at a higher level, Cletus instead stayed loyal to the club in whose aims he believed.
As news of the arrests spread, 250 anti-racism protesters managed to block the progress of the vehicle containing Cletus B for two hours, but were powerless to prevent both players being moved to a detention centre. According to Albert Steinhauser, justice spokesman for the Austrian Green Party, the players’ rights to a fair hearing were then “wilfully abused”. Their legal representatives were refused access and misinformed, telephone calls were denied, and attempts to place a further application for asylum were simply ignored by detention centre officials. Cletus also alleges that he was refused medical treatment for a shoulder injury inflicted during his arrest.
Demonstrations of solidarity with FC Sans Papiers continued to be held. Fans of second-division team First Vienna unfurled a banner in support of the club during their match against FC Gratkorn. Yet on May 4, both Cletus and Vincent were deported to Lagos from Schwechat airport on a flight which contained 19 other Nigerian asylum seekers, many of whom had been detained illegally for several weeks.
Cletus’s future causes particular concern. As a gay man he could face up to 14 years in prison or death by stoning under the Sharia law in operation in the north of Nigeria. Unlike the UK, Austria does not view persecution on the basis of sexuality as valid grounds for granting asylum. “Deporting a gay asylum seeker to a country with Sharia law can mean the death penalty for homosexuals,” said the Green Party councillor Marco Schreuder. “It’s completely unacceptable.” Cletus has now disappeared underground in Nigeria, unable even to contact his family.
“The deportation of both footballers shows the bureaucratic cruelty with which integrated asylum seekers are treated in Austria,” argues Albert Steinhauser. “A humanitarian right of residence must be possible for someone who has led a lengthy well-integrated existence in Austria.” For him, the pitch invasion by the police “destroys the NGO’s trust in their integration work and also destroys the trust of asylum seekers in their NGOs”. Such organisations now “run the risk of being abused as ‘collection points’ for the immigration police”.
FC Sans Papiers plan to fulfil this season’s fixtures and then decide whether it’s worth continuing. “The players’ trust in me is basically destroyed,” says Dr Bukasa, whose squad has now lost 26 players in two and a half months. “I even risk losing the name FC Sans Papiers next season as the boys think it’s unlucky.” The remaining players are understandably fearful – only five team members currently attend training. Their faith in the Austrian justice system seems irretrievably damaged. “God himself, should they meet him, is the only white man they can still trust,” Bukasa concludes.
From WSC 281 July 2010