How the Far Right Weaponized Europe’s Interior Ministries to Block Refugees

Even when populist parties aren’t in the majority, they’ve found a way to make fast progress on their defining issue.

Anti-Kickl demonstrators hand out stickers with his face on them at a rally in Vienna in December 2018.
Anti-Kickl demonstrators hand out stickers with his face on them at a rally in Vienna in December 2018. (Alex Halada / AFP / Getty)

VIENNA—Herbert Kickl might be the most important far-right ideologue you’ve never heard of. He’s radically reshaping both refugee policies and the tone of political discourse across Europe.

A longtime strategist for Austria’s nativist Freedom Party (FPÖ), Kickl has gone from working behind the scenes to becoming the country’s interior minister. And with a string of controversial statements and policy proposals—primarily related to immigration and refugees—he is using his newfound prominence to help ensure that those issues remain a part of the conversation domestically.

In that, Kickl is an example of a broader trend in Europe. The FPÖ entered government in the fall of 2017, partnering with Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s People’s Party. While coalition partners might have traditionally squabbled over who in the foreign ministry could stand on the world stage or who in the finance ministry could control the country’s purse strings, that’s no longer necessarily the case. Populist politicians like Kickl now covet the interior ministry.

Because immigration issues are still near the top of the European political agenda, even as refugee arrivals have dwindled, the job gives people like Kickl an excuse to talk about their favorite issue. As interior minister, he has not only the possibility, but the responsibility, to address immigration and integration topics. One need only look at Kickl or Matteo Salvini, of the far-right League in Italy, to see how instrumental such a position can be for these parties’ goals. Indeed, for like-minded parties and politicians across Europe, Austria, and Kickl, serve as a test case for how far a right-wing government can go in implementing stricter immigration policies. And the government in Vienna has proposed some of the most stringent rules in the European Union.

“Populist radical-right parties and politicians consider almost everything as a law and order issue—from drugs to immigration,” Cas Mudde, a professor at the University of Georgia’s School of Public and International Affairs who focuses on far-right populism and radical-right movements, told me. “The Ministry of the Interior … is the key position for them.”

In February, Kurz and Kickl announced a plan to detain asylum seekers who are deemed potentially dangerous, but have not committed any crimes (a policy they described in German as Sicherungshaft). Kickl, announcing the policy in typical bombastic fashion, said detention would be intended for “someone who has already strapped on an explosive belt in his mind.” Implementing the plan would require a change in the Austrian constitution, and opposition parties have said it violates basic human rights, with some observers likening it to the dystopian sci-fi movie Minority Report.

The idea for Sicherungshaft accompanied a handful of other policies intended to dissuade asylum seekers from coming here. As of this month, for example, refugee-processing centers will be renamed “departure centers,” sending a clear message about how welcome refugees and immigrants are in Austria. The government also introduced a supposedly “voluntary” curfew for asylum seekers awaiting a decision, keeping them in these centers from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., and threatening to move them to centers outside metropolitan areas if they don’t comply.

Coverage of and conversation about these policies have been inescapable here in Vienna. They are the main topic that politicians are asked about in primetime television interviews; national newspapers and Vienna tabloids feature stories about them prominently. That is part of the point.

“What the FPÖ really succeeds at is setting the agenda,” says Jakob-Moritz Eberl, a political-communications researcher at the University of Vienna and a member of the Austrian National Election Study, which conducts electoral and voter research. With Kickl specifically, he adds, “It feels like there’s this red line, and he’s pushing it and pushing it and pushing it ... and he’s trying to see how far can he go.”

This latest media firestorm was, as Eberl notes, only one of many such controversies from Kickl or his ministry. Beginning with his suggestion in early 2018 that asylum seekers should be “concentrated” in specific places, which he later insisted was not intended to provoke, Kickl has repeatedly said things that raise questions about his and the government’s commitment to the rule of law and that co-opt the political discussion in the process.

In January, he called parts of the European Convention on Human Rights—a legally binding set of rules governing human-rights issues in European countries—“strange,” and said its “many years old” restrictions “prevent us from doing what is necessary.” And last fall, Kickl came under fire over a leaked internal memo instructing police agencies, which are controlled by his ministry, to withhold all but the most basic required information from unfriendly media outlets. The memo also suggested that the ministry should play up sexual crimes by asylum seekers and immigrants and should clearly state the nationality and residence status of perpetrators in press releases.

Kickl’s approach to the interior-ministry job is informed by the tactics he’s always practiced as an FPÖ party strategist. From writing speeches for the late party leader Jörg Haider to creating the anti-Muslim campaign rhetoric that helped revive the FPÖ’s electoral fortunes in the mid-2000s (such as Daham statt Islam, roughly translated as “The homeland instead of Islam,” or Mehr Mut für unser Wiener Blut, “More courage for our Viennese blood”), Kickl has been the mastermind of the party’s current course.

“It’s very right-wing and authoritarian,” Michaela Moser, a co-organizer of weekly anti-government demonstrations in Vienna, told me at one such event in the city’s working-class Meidling district. Kickl, she said, was “outstanding, in a negative way.”

The anger at these Thursday-evening gatherings, usually attended by a few thousand people, is directed not specifically at Kickl but at the government as a whole—and often at Kurz, the chancellor, for allowing the far right to hold key positions in the first place. As the protest began its march toward one of Vienna’s famous balls held nearby, a group of elderly women, part of the group Omas Gegen Rechts (“Grandmas Against the Right”), held up signs, dancing and chanting, while one father wheeled his toddler in a stroller with a sign reading Lieber klein als Kurz (“Better small than short,” a play on Kurz’s name).

“We have to be aware that [Kurz and his party] just let Kickl get away with all of this, so they are on his side,” Moser said.

Kickl is not the only far-right populist using his country’s interior ministry to serve his party’s rhetorical or political goals. Italy’s Salvini also holds that position; through a mix of savvy communication strategy and hard-line language on immigration, he has managed to nearly double public support for his party since last year’s Italian elections. When a boat of refugees crosses the Mediterranean and is headed for Italy, Salvini is the one who can publicly vow to turn it away, scoring points with his base. When he posts a sensational headline about violent immigrants on Facebook or Twitter, he’s doing it because he sees it as part of his job as interior minister.

In Germany, the interior ministry might not be controlled by the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD)—but the man who holds the job, Horst Seehofer, tried to use it last summer to shore up his hard-line credentials. With his center-right Christian Social Union facing a tough challenge from the AfD in state elections, Seehofer threatened to bring down the German government if Chancellor Angela Merkel didn’t agree to a set of tighter immigration policies.

Seehofer’s move ultimately backfired, though, and in so doing illustrated the potential downsides that the far-right faces in that role. Though Seehofer did exact some policy concessions from Merkel, he backed down on his threat to blow up the government, and his party posted record losses at the polls. In effect, a populist interior minister seen as lax or weak on immigration issues would create a backlash far bigger than if he had dropped the ball in another policy area.

But by proposing radical policies even if they’re not ultimately implemented, such politicians work to inoculate themselves from criticism: If only the opposition had listened to my ideas, the country could have been safe. (Kickl hit on that point when he announced the government’s Sicherungshaft plans: “Whoever doesn’t support this change clearly shows that protecting the population from criminal asylum seekers is not a real concern,” he said.)

As the flow of refugees has slowed significantly across Europe, far-right populist parties are in danger of losing their key talking point—and in many cases, continue to ramp up their anti-refugee rhetoric as a result. Holding interior ministries and setting immigration policy gives them a way to keep the issue alive and convince people that large-scale immigration is still a threat.

“Everything is used to substantiate this danger, which is absurd since Austria has almost no more arriving refugees,” Ruth Wodak, a linguistics professor at Lancaster University and the University of Vienna who focuses on right-wing populist rhetoric, told me. “But to keep their voters satisfied, they constantly use these arguments—a politics of fear.”