Austria mulls rejecting most migrants amid far-right surge

epa05275363 People demonstrate against the Austrian government's planned re-introduction of border controls at the Brenner Pass, Austria, 24 April 2016. Austrian and Tyrolean authorities announced they will reinstate border controls along Austrian's border crossings with Italy in order to stem the influx of migrants.  EPA/JAN HETFLEISCH


Vienna/ AFP

The Austrian parliament voted on Wednesday on adopting some of Europe’s toughest asylum laws, as the country’s political leaders struggle to halt the surging far-right which triumphed in a weekend presidential poll.
The hotly-disputed bill would let the government declare a “state of emergency” over the migrant crisis and reject most asylum-seekers, including from war-torn countries like Syria, directly at the border.
Rights groups, religious leaders and opposition parties have slammed the legislation—the latest in a string of hardline measures against migrants—as violating international human rights conventions.
But Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka defended the proposal, saying Austria had no other choice as long as “so many other European Union members fail to do their part” to limit the influx of migrants and refugees.
“We cannot shoulder the whole world’s burden,” he said. Wedged between Europe’s two main migrant routes —the Balkans and Italy—Austria received some 90,000 asylum requests in 2015, the second-highest in the bloc on a per capita basis.
More than a million people, primarily fleeing violence in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, arrived in Europe last year, triggering the continent’s worst migration crisis since 1945. Many braved a short but dangerous sea journey from Turkey to Greece, before trekking up along the Balkans toward western and northern Europe.
In a bid to reduce the flow, the EU struck a controversial deal with Ankara earlier this year, under which all “irregular” migrants arriving in Greece after March 20 will be returned to Turkey.
But although the pact has already sharply reduced the number of people crossing from Turkey, the International Organisation for Migration last week warned that the numbers are “once again ticking up”.
The massive influx has unleashed a resurgence of fringe parties across Europe, pressuring traditionally centrist governments to adopt a much firmer stance on migrants.

‘Dangerous tools’
Under Austria’s proposed legislation, the government could declare an emergency if a sudden rise in migrant numbers threatened the country’s “national security”.
Authorities would then only accept cases of refugees facing safety threats in a neighbouring transit country or whose relatives are already in Austria. The rules would also force migrants to request asylum directly at the border in purpose-built registration centres, where they may be held for up to 120 hours while their application is being checked.
“These are extremely dangerous tools that are being sharpened here especially if they fall into the wrong hands,” warned the leader of the small NEOS opposition party, Mathias Strolz, ahead of the vote.
It comes after the candidate of the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe), Norbert Hofer, sent shock waves through the political establishment by winning the first round of a presidential ballot on Sunday.
Meanwhile, the two candidates of the centrist coalition failed to even make it into the runoff on May 22. The FPOe also looks set to do well in the next scheduled general election in 2018, scoring consistently more than 30 percent in polls.

‘Far from an invasion’
Trying to stem voter desertion to the far-right, Austria’s ruling coalition erected border fences and introduced an annual cap on asylum-seekers.
It also pressured other countries along the Balkan trail to close their frontiers earlier this year. The clampdown has effectively shut the route, leaving some 53,000 migrants currently stranded in Greece. It has also pushed people smugglers to seek out new routes into Europe, including via Italy, which has so far seen 26,000 migrants arrive on its shores mainly from Libya.
This has prompted Austria to announce it would re-instate border controls at the Brenner pass in the Alps, a key transport corridor between northern and southern Europe.
The move has sparked protests at the checkpoint in recent weeks and drawn strong condemnation from Italy.
“We’re very far from an invasion,” Foreign Affairs Minister Paolo Gentiloni told Austrian newspaper Die Presse on Wednesday.

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