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Europe

Austria under fire for migration law changes

media  
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon adressing the Austrian Parliament on April 28 REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader

UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon attacked what he called "increasingly restrictive" refugee policies in Europe as the continent faces its worst migrant crisis in decades. Speaking to the Austrian parliament on Thursday he criticised amendments to the 2005 asylum law that may give police sweeping powers.

The legal document, officially called the Änderung des Asyl Gesetz 2015 (Changes in the Asylum law of 2015), was passed on 27 April by a majority, headed by the right-wing Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) and the Christian Democrat ÖVP.

“The most striking and significant change is the possibility of government to have a legal ordinance that would prevent Austria to receive further refugees,” says Anny Knapp, chairwoman of Asylum Coordination Austria.

“This means that all refugees that arrive at Austria's borders will be sent back to our neighbouring countries and there will not be an asylum procedure any longer.”

According to Knapp, the amendments constitute a “massive” violation of EU law, because EU law guarantees everyone the right to seek asylum.

Apart from the changes in the 2015 asylum law, the Austrian parliament voted to change the border control Law. Here amendments call for stricter and more detailed checking of fingerprints and running immigrants's details more consistently through a national database to see if they can be refused at the spot.

“There is a connection between these two laws because only if there is the possibility to introduce controls at the border is it possible to apply all these emergency laws that is foreseen,” says Knapp. 

The emergency laws form a third piece of legislation that still has to be presented separately in the days to come. It is will consist of an ordinance that says that, in case of irregularities, the authorities can invoke emergency laws that basically give them unlimited power. 

“Our main concern regarding the amendments is that with the help of an emergency decree access to the asylum procedure might get extremely limited,” says Ruth Schoeffl, UNHCR spokesperson in Vienna.

“In Austria at the moment we have an asylum law where people can access asylum at the border or somewhere else in Austria and with the decree it might happen that the access to these procedures will be limited so now we are calling on authorities not to put this decree in function, not to adopt it, and to stick to the procedure as it is now,” she says. 

Eurosceptics interpret the latest developments in Austria as a proof that the EU is falling apart. 

“Europe will continue to exist,” says Robert Oulds, of the Thatcherite Bruges Group thinktank. “The European Union, which is an artificial political construct where powers are centralised in the main institutions in Brussels and Luxembourg, all that may no longer exist as we know it, and the open borders of Schengen haven't worked either because it just enables a massive influx of people to come to Europe, which isn't controlled in any way because control can only be exercised at a national level.” 

But the UNHCR keeps up the fight, says Ruth Schoeffl, especially after Ban Ki-Moon’s speech at the Austrian parliament yesterday.

“We believe that rules that are unilateral measures, as also the secretary general said, should not be taken by single states but states should rather push for solidarity, for European solidarity,” she says. 

Schoeffl calls for “a change in the thinking that we see where many European states looking rather for national measures instead of solidarity and EU-wide measures, which in our view only shift the problems but which will not solve the problems.”

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