Austria threatens to sue Hungary over refusal to take back refugees

Migrants arrive at the Austrian train station of Nickelsdorf. © Heinz-Peter Bader
The Austrian interior minister has threatened Hungary with “legal consequences” if it refuses to take back refugees under the Dublin Accord – the treaty which rules that migrants must be sent back to their initial point of entry to the EU.

The war of words between Austria and Hungary took a new turn on Wednesday, when Vienna accused Budapest of undermining the European refugee agreement and threatened to take the issue to court.

Hungary spans an area between Southern Europe – where hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants entered the EU last year – and wealthier Central and Northern European states. It says it is unable to tackle the migrant influx alone and cannot serve as a transit country along the so-called Balkan route, declared closed earlier this year.

Austria, whose center-right government is locked in a struggle with the increasingly-popular far-right Freedom Party (FPO), has introduced an annual limit on the number of refugees and has made deportations of newcomers easier.

"In the main we have a European Dublin regime. The European Union is in charge of ... [the Dublin Accord] and states or groups of states that permanently break the law have to expect legal consequences," Austrian Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka told ORF radio on Wednesday.

Central and Eastern European countries, including Hungary, have opposed any attempts from Brussels to force states to take back migrants, specifically referring to the eventual introduction of new mandatory quotas which are seen as “solidarity measures.”

"States or groups of states that permanently break the law have to expect legal consequences," Sobotka said, responding to a question on Hungary’s refusal to take back refugees from Western European countries.

“In that case, the [Austrian] republic must sue. The republic must see that the European Union acts according to the law, full stop," he added. He did not specify, however, what judicial institution would be employed to file such a lawsuit against Hungary.

To date, Hungary has taken only four out of 7,200 returned migrants, according to Die Presse newspaper, citing sources in the Hungarian Interior Ministry. 

A spokesman for the Hungarian government later denounced the Austrian interior minister’s comments, saying that other EU countries failed to comply with the Dublin rules as well.

"Hungary cannot and will not take responsibility for, and suffer the consequences of, the irresponsible conduct of other member states – Austria, Germany – which expressly suggested ignoring the rules, or for other states – Greece – that neglected to do their job," the spokesman said in an emailed statement to Reuters.

According to previous reports, Hungary became so inundated by asylum applications in June 2015 that it stopped taking back refugees who had crossed the border to other EU countries and were detained there.

Earlier this year, Hungary erected a border fence to stem the flow of refugees and migrants from non-EU state Serbia, with the majority of them arriving from the Middle East and North Africa.

In the meantime, Austrian officials have issued a number of angry statements relating to Germany’s ‘open door policy,’ seen by many in the EU as an incentive for refugees to come to Europe.

“Austria is not a waiting room for Germany,” Defense Minister Hans Peter Doskozil said in late August. “The ‘we can do it’ policy is irresponsible,” he added, referring to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s much-discussed statement of last summer.