Austria passes law to shut off border if refugee influx is too great

Migrants wait to cross the border from Slovenia into Spielfeld in Austria, February 16, 2016. © Leonhard Foeger
A new law giving the Austrian government powers to turn away refugees from its borders has been passed by Austria’s federal chamber. The measure could be introduced if the number of migrants looking to enter Austria threatens national security.

The legislation was comfortably passed 37 votes to 20 by the Austrian federal chamber, after it was given the green light by the larger parliamentary chamber on April 27. 

The approval of the law means Vienna will now be able to declare a state of emergency if too many migrants are try to enter Austria. Depending on the severity of the situation, this measure could be extended for three separate six-month terms. 

Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka defended the measure and insisted Austria had no other option as long as "so many other European Union members fail to do their part" to stop the heavy influx of refugees.

"We cannot shoulder the whole world's burden," he said, adding that Austria had received 90,000 asylum applications in 2015 and had enforced a cap of 37,500 for 2016. 

The Green Party has been vocal in their condemnation of the new piece of legislation. They believe it may even be unconstitutional and in breach of EU law. 

“That is an absolute breach,” said the head of the Green Party Eva Glawischnig, in view of how the legislation contradicts the European Convention on Human Rights. 

Dr Christian Schmaus, a law expert in Austrian asylum cases, told the Local it will be difficult for Austria to abide by international treaties, such as giving safe passage to those affected by war if the controversial law to turn away migrants at its borders is put into practice. 

“There will be no access for most of the people to the asylum procedure, nor for them to check whether there is an infringement of their rights,” he said. 

The CEO of the Vienna Center for Societal Security Research said the new legislation is no more than a “short-sighted reaction” to the recent election results and will not be any help in terms of the migrant crisis. 

“The Austrians at the moment are following a very short-sighted populist sentiment… we had the election recently and there was a move towards rightwing populists, and this kind of legislation is simply a reaction to that. But it will not be effective, and it will not solve the problem, and it will also have a negative impact on the overall European strategy to handle this problem,” Reinhard Kreissl told RT. 

Austria has also been locked in a dispute with Italy over a border crossing between the two countries. Vienna wanted to close the Brenner Pass in the Alps by erecting a fence up to four meters high in places, because it fears migrants will use the pass to cross into Austria. However, the move incensed Italian politicians, with Italy’s Interior Minister Angelino Alfano calling it “a waste of money.” 

The Italian government feared that closing the border route could affect trade. The pass is Italy's main commercial route to Germany, its top-trading partner, by way of Austria. 

The threat was not carried out, but has led to Italy introducing greater border controls. On May 13, Rome said it had deployed 110 more guards to keep migrants from traveling into Austria. 

"If Italy carries on acting as it has done until now, namely by carrying out controls on trains, at its interior borders and at exit points, then there is no need (for controls)," a spokeswoman for Sobotka said.