Austrian parliament passes tough measures against refugees

Published April 28th, 2016 - 06:00 GMT
Children queue for food at the makeshift camp for migrants and refugees at the Greek-Macedonian border near the village of Idomeni on April 27, 2016. (AFP/Joe Klamar)
Children queue for food at the makeshift camp for migrants and refugees at the Greek-Macedonian border near the village of Idomeni on April 27, 2016. (AFP/Joe Klamar)

The Austrian parliament adopted a controversial bill Wednesday aimed at stemming the flow of refugees into the country despite harsh criticism by rights campaigners and from the neighboring Italy.

Members of the legislature passed the hotly-disputed bill by 98 votes to 67, allowing the government to declare a “state of emergency” over the refugee crisis and reject most asylum-seekers directly at the border.

Based on the legislation, authorities are now allowed to only accept cases of refugees facing safety threats in a neighboring transit country or requests by those whose relatives are already in Austria.

The bill, one of Europe's toughest asylum laws, comes amid efforts by Austria's political leadership to contain the surge of far-right parties.

The proposed legislation in Austria comes shortly after the candidate of the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe), Norbert Hofer, won the first round of a presidential ballot on April 24, sending shock waves through the political establishment in the country. Two main candidates of Austria’s ruling coalition failed to even make it into the runoff on May 22. Observers say the FPOe could also do well in the next scheduled general election in 2018 as it has consistently scored more than 30 percent in polls.

The legislation has met fierce criticism by rights groups, religious leaders and opposition parties as the preventive measure covers refugees from war-torn countries such as Syria. Campaigners said the measures would clearly run against international human rights conventions.

As part of its restrictive measures, Austria also plans to reinstate border controls, including a 370-meter (1,200-foot) fence, at the Brenner Pass in the Alps. That has specifically irked officials in Italy with some likening it to preparations for a military invasion.

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi on Wednesday denounced the plan, saying it was “shamelessly against European rules, as well as being against history, against logic and against the future.”

Renzi said the number of refugees arriving in Italy via the Mediterranean was not so high, arguing that Austria’s plans for erecting walls at the border with Italy showed an “exaggerated” alarm.

Officials in the Austrian government, however, have defended the bill and other measures, saying Austria has had enough flexibility regarding the refugees.

“We cannot shoulder the whole world's burden,” said Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka, who added that Austria had no other choice as long as “so many other European Union members fail to do their part” to limit the influx of refugees.

More than 1.1 million refugees arrived in Europe last year, triggering the worst crisis for the continent in decades. Some 90,000 people submitted asylum applications to Austria in 2015, the second-highest in the European Union on a per capita basis.

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