United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon has hit out at “increasingly restrictive” European asylum policies in a speech to the Austrian Parliament, which has voted to bring in some of the continent’s most stringent laws after a far-right politician won the first round of presidential elections.
Ban did not name any country in his speech but, considering the venue, his comments appeared to allude at least in part to ongoing Austrian moves to reduce the entry of asylum seekers.
“I am concerned that European countries are now adopting increasingly restrictive immigration and refugee policies,” he told MPs. “Such policies negatively affect the obligation of member states under international humanitarian law and European law.”
The Parliament’s lower house voted on Wednesday in favour of a new law that will allow police to reject asylum seekers at the border and to stop most successful applicants from applying to be reunited with their families for three years – a development that rights groups have described as inhumane.
Restrictions on family reunification were unfair and short-sighted, said UN High Commission for Refugees spokesperson, Ruth Schöffl. “Separation from family members does not only result in personal harm but also has negative impact on integration efforts. UNHCR studies show that protection holders whose family members are abroad have much more difficulties to learn the language, to find a job and to stand on their own feet.”
The law has still to be passed by Austria’s second parliamentary chamber, but this is a formality. The interior ministry expects to begin enforcing the law at the start of June.
Under the terms of the new law, the Austrian government will be able to declare a state of emergency in times of significant irregular migration. Once this mechanism is triggered, “irregular migrants” at the Austrian borders will immediately be sent back to the countries they arrived from, on the assumption that Austria’s neighbours are safe for refugees – a move that echoes controversial step taken by Hungary in September.
“People making applications for asylum at the borders with Italy, Hungary and Slovenia would not get permission to enter Austrian territory,” says an interior ministry spokesperson. “If they make it into Austria they would be brought to registration centres, and there the authorities would start the procedure to send them back to the neighbouring countries that they came from.”
Austria is the latest European country to change its asylum laws in response to the refugee crisis. Denmark, Hungary, Sweden and Greece have also made it harder for refugees to reach their territory.
“These measures constitute a legal wall to asylum just as despicable as a razor-wire fence,” said Judith Sunderland, Human Rights Watch’s acting deputy for Europe and its central Asia director. “Austria should be working with other European Union countries to make sure people have a fair chance to get the protection they need, not taking unilateral decisions to pass asylum seekers around like hot potatoes.”
The Austrian interior ministry said the law would be enacted even though current migration flows are far lower than they have been for months. Since last September, more than 800?000 asylum seekers reached Austria after landing in Greece, and slightly more than 50?000 claimed asylum during that period. But since the closure of the Macedonian border in March, it has become much harder for people to move north from Greece. The average number of daily arrivals has dropped to fewer than 150, a relatively low level compared with the thousands who arrived last autumn.
But politicians fear a spike in arrivals later in the European summer, particularly if Syrians, who would previously have attempted the Greek route, now travel to Libya in an attempt to reach northern Europe through Italy.
The Austrian move has been criticised by both the Italian government, which fears a logjam of refugees on Italian soil, and rights groups, which see the law as illegal and inhumane. Some see it as a betrayal of Austria’s history of asylum; in 1956 the country hosted hundreds of thousands of Hungarians fleeing unrest in Budapest. – © Guardian News and Media 2016