Sunday 17 December 2017

Austria plans fence on Italian border to stop refugees crossing at Brenner Pass

A boy holds his sister at a makeshift camp for refugees and migrants at the port of Piraeus, near Athens
A boy holds his sister at a makeshift camp for refugees and migrants at the port of Piraeus, near Athens

Nick Squires in Rome

Austria is to tighten controls and build a fence on its border with Italy as fears mount that the closure of the Balkan route could force thousands of refugees and migrants to cross the Mediterranean from Libya and head towards northern Europe.

The tougher measures, to be imposed at the Brenner Pass, are the latest move by an EU country in a domino effect of border restrictions aimed at stemming the influx of asylum seekers and economic migrants after a million entered the bloc last year.

The mountain pass, which has been strategically important since the days of the Roman Empire, is a key transport corridor between northern and southern Europe and a symbol of the Schengen principle of visa-free travel.

The fence will be 250 metres long and encompass the busy roads and railway lines that cross the pass, said Helmut Tomac, the head of police in the southern Austrian state of Tyrol.

The fence, which Vienna preferred to describe as a "border management system", will allow the Austrian authorities to have more control over passengers and vehicles travelling through the border crossing, which lies south of Innsbruck.

Austria fears that up to 300,000 migrants, many of them African, are in makeshift camps in Libya, waiting to cross the Mediterranean to Sicily. Many would then head north to the wealthy countries of northern Europe, transiting through Austria. There has been speculation that Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans may also try to use the route after finding the route from Turkey to Greece all but closed in recent weeks.

On the Austrian border, construction crews were pouring concrete yesterday for the foundations of a migrant registration hall and barriers.

The construction work is due to be completed by the end of May, with tighter border controls to be introduced by June 1 at the latest, said Hans Peter Doskozil, Austria's defence minister. The measures will be similar to tighter controls introduced already at Spielfeld on Austria's border with Slovenia, where a fence has been built.

Around 90,000 refugees and migrants claimed asylum in Austria last year but Vienna is determined to keep the number much lower this year.

It has imposed a quota of 37,500 asylum places.

Italy reacted with anger and surprise at the move. "The construction of a barrier at the Brenner Pass is a grave error which violates European rules," said Sandro Gozzi, the state secretary for European affairs.

Arno Kompatscher, the governor of the autonomous Italian province of South Tyrol, said the Brenner Pass was "a symbol of European unification and 70 years of peace and social and economic well-being".

"With this behaviour, Austria has put itself in the same boat as Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary," he told 'La Repubblica' newspaper.

"The only way to deal with the dramatic migration problem is through European solidarity."

The European Commission said it was "very concerned" about the new controls.

"If these plans should materialise then we will have to look at them very seriously. The Brenner pass is essential for freedom of movement within the European Union," said spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud.

Around two million trucks pass through the Brenner each year and stricter controls will mean delays and higher costs for haulage companies.

Meanwhile, an amateur video that aired on Bulgarian TV appears to show three migrants with their hands tied behind their backs and a group of vigilantes ordering them to return to Turkey.

The migrants, carrying backpacks, are lying on the ground restrained with black zip ties.

One of the men surrounding them tells the trio: "No Bulgaria. Go back (to) Turkey," and that they should leave immediately.

One of the migrants nods his head to indicate that he understands.

It was not immediately clear when the video was shot, but it appears to be in an area near the Bulgaria-Turkey border.

It aired on multiple Bulgarian TV stations on Monday, after the video first appeared on social media with a comment reading: "Detention of migrants and return to Turkey." (© Daily Telegraph London)

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