Saturday 24 March 2018

Austria asylum cap highlights EU split over migrants

A registration tent for migrants at the Slovenia border in Spielfeld, Austria (AP)
A registration tent for migrants at the Slovenia border in Spielfeld, Austria (AP)

Austria vowed to press ahead with plans to cap the number of asylum seekers entering the country despite claims the move would break the law.

The pledge came as EU leaders struggled to end their fragmented approach to managing Europe's biggest refugee emergency since the Second World War.

In tense late night talks in Brussels, the leaders also decided to hold a summit in early March with Turkey, which has been the source of hundreds of thousands of people arriving in the EU over the last year.

More than 1 million people entered the EU in 2015 fleeing conflict or poverty, and some 84,000 have entered so far this year.

Overwhelmed by the numbers and frustrated by their inability to agree on an effective European response, some EU countries have begun tightening border controls or putting up fences without warning their neighbours.

In the latest in a series of unilateral measures by nations, Austria announced that it would allow no more than 80 people a day to apply for asylum at its southern border points, as of Friday.

But the EU's senior migration official, Dimitris Avramopoulos, said: "Austria has a legal obligation to accept any asylum application that is made on its territory or at its border."

In a letter to Austrian interior minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner, Mr Avramopoulos said a ceiling on asylum-seekers "would be plainly incompatible with Austria's obligations" under EU and international law.

Austria's chancellor, Werner Faymann, was not moved, saying his country would only accept 37,500 applications this year as planned.

"Last year, we had around 6,000 more asylum applications than Italy. We have had a lot more asylum seekers than France. And anyone who has ever looked at a map knows that, for example, those two countries are larger than Austria and also have more inhabitants," he told reporters at the summit.

The new rift laid bare the frustration of nations destabilised by the arrival of so many people, and the lack of confidence that any efficient European solution can be found.

Belgian prime minister Charles Michel said the room was divided "between those who believe we can find solutions together and those who prefer to act alone".

European Parliament president Martin Schulz pointed to selfishness and a lack of solidarity.

"The problem is that everyone sees the situation from their individual standpoint and waits for the other to move first in implementing those necessary solutions," he said.

"Lamentably, this crisis is exposing serious fault lines within our union."

Greece has been overwhelmed by the entry of some 850,000 people last year, mostly from Turkey.

Thousands are still entering every week, the Greek coastguard has been overwhelmed, and the country has barely 10,000 places to shelter those arriving.

The EU has given Greece three months to restore order on its borders, but few believe Athens will be able to meet the deadline.

In calling a summit with Turkey in just a few weeks, the leaders are looking at ways to persuade it to deliver on its pledge to crack down on migrants trying to cross into Greece.

No migrants were arriving at the main border crossing with Slovenia on Friday - a situation police said might be due to bad weather in the Aegean Sea.

Police spokesman Fritz Grundnig, at the Spielfeld crossing, said the reason is not clear but "we assume that there was a weather problem in the Aegean a couple of days ago".

Press Association

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