The Austrian government announced yesterday (20 January) that it would cap the number of people allowed to claim asylum this year, and that it would send excess refugees back, or deport them to the neighbouring countries through which they came.
Austria is the first member of the EU’s borderless space having “temporarily” suspended the Schengen agreement. Several other countries have reintroduced controls at some of their internal borders.
The German government commented that Austria’s decision was “not helpful” to its efforts to negotiate a European Union-wide solution with the support of Turkey, from which most migrants reach the European continent.
Hundreds of thousands of people have streamed into Austria since September, when the small Alpine republic of 8.5 million, and Germany, threw open their borders to a wave of people fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
The vast majority of arrivals simply crossed the country on their way to Germany, but a fraction have stayed. Roughly 90,000 people, or more than 1% of Austria’s population, applied for asylum last year.
Public fears about immigration have fuelled support for the far right, and calls for a ceiling on the number of migrants by members of the centre-right People’s Party within the coalition government have grown.
“We cannot take in all asylum seekers in Austria, or in Germany or in Sweden,” Werner Faymann, a Social Democrat who has resisted calls to cap immigration, told a joint news conference, referring to the countries that have taken in the most migrants.
The government plan announced on Wednesday provides for the number of asylum claims to be restricted to 1.5% of Austria’s population, spread over the next four years.
Breaking down the four-year cap, the statement said the number of asylum claims would be limited to 37,500 this year, falling annually to 25,000 in 2019.
Asked what would happen if the number of people who wanted to apply for asylum exceeded that figure, Faymann said only that experts were due to examine the issue.
“We must also step up controls at our borders massively,” Faymann told the joint news conference with Vice Chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner and other officials, without explaining what that would involve.
Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner said one option would be to accept asylum requests without processing them.
“The (other) option of not having to accept asylum requests at the Austrian border is now being checked, and to send these people back, to deport them back to our safe neighbour states,” she told public broadcaster ORF.
Slovenian police said later on Wednesday that Slovenia planned “the same action” as Austria on its southern border with Croatia if Austria, which lies north of Slovenia, took further steps to limit the inflow of migrants.
A contagious example
The Dutch prime minister, whose government currently chairs EU ministerial councils, said Austria’s move illustrated the kind of national action likely to multiply if the 28-nation EU did not start implementing a commonly agreed strategy on asylum before a likely “spike” in arrivals with spring weather.
Saying the EU had six to eight weeks to end division and inaction on managing immigration, Mark Rutte told reporters at the European Parliament in Strasbourg that if that failed, “we have to think about a plan B”.
As Germany has firmed up border controls in recent months, Austria has often followed. Austria’s interior minister said last week it would start turning away people who were no longer being let into Germany, prompting a knock-on effect further down the main route into Europe.
Faymann said he had discussed his government’s plans in principle with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and their Slovenian counterpart Miro Cerar.
Faymann referred to the measures as a second-best option while awaiting a European solution involving securing the EU’s external borders, setting up centres there for people to apply for asylum, and spreading them around the bloc.
European Council President Donald Tusk issued a stark warning on 19 January that the EU had “no more than two months” to tackle the migration crisis engulfing the 28-nation bloc, or face the collapse of its passport-free Schengen zone.
Macedonia has in the meantime closed its border with Greece to migrants, blocking the path of hundreds trying to reach northern Europe. Serbia and Croatia meanwhile announced that they would only allow migrants to pass through if they were specifically seeking asylum in Austria or Germany.
Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has warned that restoring borders in response to the refugee problem could kill off the internal market.
Juncker also said that the cost of reintroducing borders and the losses incurred would amount to €3 billion.