Italy will work to stop illegal migrant crossings to Austria at the Brenner Pass frontier, Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said Friday, amid fears that Vienna may reintroduce border checks there.
Austria wants to limit the number of incoming migrants and refugees, but Rome has described border closures as a breach of European Union rules and a misguided "propaganda" attempt by the Vienna government to counter the rise of the far-right Freedom Party.
"If migrants come here thinking they can cross the border they will have made a futile effort," Alfano said in a press conference at the Brenner pass following a meeting with Austrian counterpart Wolfgang Sobotka.
Alfano said his country would "catch them and take them to other places" in Italy where they will be offered asylum. An extra 50 policemen and 60 soldiers would be deployed to tighten controls around the border crossing, Alfano said.
Giving credit to the Italian minister's reassurances, Sobotka said Vienna would hold off on its border control plans. "We have to state clearly that it is no longer possible to pass through the Brenner as an illegal migrant," the Austrian minister said.
Alfano said his counterpart backed Italy's migration proposals, which call on the EU to offer African countries money to tighten border controls, emulating a controversial deal the bloc has signed with Turkey.
Friday's talks seemed to defuse Italo-Austrian tensions, after weeks of fiery exchanges, and followed a warning from Dimitris Avramopoulos, the EU commissioner for migration, that Vienna could not go beyond "temporary" border control measures at the Brenner.
Meanwhile, Italy was facing more migrant landings on its shores. Its coast guard said Thursday that 801 people were rescued from two boats off the coast of Sicily, but Alfano dismissed talk of a mounting crisis.
He said arrivals in the year to date were down 13.7 per cent from the same period of 2015. "Let us not be alarmed," he said.
He spoke after EU border agency Frontex reported that in April, for the first time since June 2015, monthly migrant arrivals were higher in Italy than in Greece, following a migration-stemming deal between the EU and Turkey.
Landings on Greek islands dropped by 90 per cent to less than 2,700, whereas 8,370 migrants were detected on Italian shores. That was still 13 per cent less than in March and a nearly 50 per cent drop when compared to April 2015.
Contradicting earlier reports from other sources, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said that scarcely any Syrians were among a group of 342 rescued migrants disembarked in the Sicilian port of Augusta on Friday.
Large-scale Syrian refugee landings would have confirmed fears that following the closure of the so-called Balkan route, connecting Turkey to Germany and further north, Italy had become a new entry point for refugees from the Middle East and beyond.
Flavio Di Giacomo, an IOM spokesman in Rome, told dpa there was "only one" Syrian in the group, while the rest were Egyptians, Somalis and Sudanese. He added that according to official Italian data, only 26 Syrians had made it to Italy as of April 30.
According to the IOM, 31,219 migrants have landed in Italy in the year to date, including 2,513 in the May 4-11 period. The most common nationalities among those who arrived in the last month were Nigerians, Gambians, Senegalese, Guineans and Ivorians.
By Alvise Armellini
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