Austria sets asylum limit as eastern Europe hikes pressure

A man is lifted over a fence by Slovenian policemen as migrants attempt to cross the border near Trnovec

Image. Reuters

Vienna: Austria announced Wednesday a daily limit for the number of asylum requests as eastern EU members set a mid-March deadline for a German-backed plan on Turkey sealing its borders to migrants to bear fruit.

On the eve of an EU summit, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel meanwhile urged a “common stance” in the 28-nation bloc, saying that the Turkey plan “offers a good solution”.

The Austrian government announced it would set a daily cap of 80 claims of asylum in the country.

It also said it would grant entry to a daily maximum of 3,200 people who were transiting Austria to seek asylum in a neighbouring country, effective Friday.

The move came a day after Austria said it would step up border controls and several weeks after saying it aimed to slash the number of asylum claims this year to 37,500 from 90,000 in 2015.

Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner on Wednesday said Austria had no choice but to act because there was no European solution yet in place.

“Austria is among the EU countries most under strain and is reaching breaking point. It stands to reason to want to secure your own borders when there is no European solution,” she said.

In such a situation, she said it was important that every country through the Balkans — the main route for migrants bound for northern Europe — follow Austria’s lead.

Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann said that nevertheless he still supported a deal proposed by Germany under which Turkey would seal its borders and then fly refugees to Europe.

Then they would be settled under a quota system.

At present the vast majority of migrants enter the EU through Greece and Italy, but most are able to continue their journeys to northern Europe.

However, most EU countries have shown little enthusiasm for the plan, with the so-called Visegrad Four (V4) — Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary — openly defying Merkel.

They have pledged to help Macedonia and Bulgaria close their borders with Greece, which would leave Athens with rapidly rising numbers of refugees while effectively excluding it from Europe’s passport-free Schengen zone.

– Ultimatum –

Tomas Prouza, Czech secretary of state for EU affairs, said that Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, currently the V4 head, would demand at the EU summit that the Turkey deal starts working “in three to four weeks”.

“If in mid-March the permanent inflow of 1,500-2,000 people a day continues, it will be clear that Turkey has failed to meet its promises and we will need a different kind of protection for the European border,” Prouza said in Prague.

“If Turkey fails to comply, it doesn’t make sense to wait for months. Either we see a clear drop in the number of incoming migrants or we’ll have to look for other ways,” he said.

Merkel said in Berlin that “we will speak at the upcoming EU Council about how we can work together to protect our external border, and I want us to work together on the EU-Turkish agenda that 28 members have decided”.

Ahead of Thursday’s full gathering of the EU’s 28 members in Brussels, Merkel and Faymann had been due to host talks with nine EU leaders and Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

Davutoglu however cancelled his trip following a bomb attack in Ankara on Wednesday that according to the city’s governor left at least 28 people dead.

– Slovenian soldiers –

Following Austria’s announcement, the Slovenian government said Wednesday it had asked parliament to authorise the deployment of soldiers to its frontiers to help control the migrant flow.

Last October, lawmakers in the country already approved legislation allowing the army to provide technical and logistic support.

The centrist government of Prime Minister Miro Cerar now wants soldiers to be granted the same powers as police officers and help patrol its southern frontier with Croatia as of Monday.

“Slovenia will follow (Austria’s) quotas with new measures,” Interior Minister Vesna Gyorkos Znidar told a news conference in Ljubljana.

Croatia on Tuesday dispatched extra policemen to its eastern frontier to “toughen up border controls” with Serbia.

Overnight Croatia sent 217 Afghan, Syrian and Iraqi refugees backto Serbia for reasons that were not immediately clear, the UN refugee agency’s spokeswoman said Wednesday.

“They were returned by train late (Tuesday), pretty much starved and frightened, and most of them spent (the) night on a platform of railway station in Sid,” a western Serbian town bordering Croatia, Mirjana Milenkovski told AFP.

They were given the option of seeking asylum in Serbia or being sent back to their country of origin, she said, adding that otherwise they risked being treated as illegal migrants.