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28 Mar, 2017 19:12

Austria seeks to withdraw from EU mandatory refugee quota system

Austria seeks to withdraw from EU mandatory refugee quota system

The Austrian government plans to pull out from the EU resettlement program which obliges it to accept more refugees under the quota assigned to it by Brussels as it has already taken in more than its fair share of asylum seekers.

"We believe an exception is necessary for Austria for having already fulfilled its obligation. We will discuss that with the European Commission," the Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern told journalists following a weekly cabinet meeting.

"We will send a letter [to Brussels] as quickly as possible and then begin discussions," he added, as cited by Reuters. The Chancellor also said Austria would like to quit the program without any legal confrontation with Brussels, which could lead to it being accused of violating its obligations under the agreement. “We are not the agent provocateur," Kern said.

Under the EU refugee resettlement and relocation program agreed in 2015, Austria has to take in some 460 asylum seekers from Italy and about 1,400 refugees from Greece. However, after Austria accepted around 90,000 refugees in 2015, it was granted a temporary exemption from the relocation program. That brief reprieve expired on March 11, 2017.

The government’s decision comes a bit unexpectedly as, just on Monday, the Austrian Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka announced that Austria has begun the process of relocation, preparing to accept the first group consisting of 50 underage asylum seekers from Italy.

The minister said he personally regards “the process of relocation as wrong” but admitted that Austria “has to fulfill its obligations” as there are no objective reasons to extend the exemption.

However, later the same day, the Austrian Defense Minister Hans-Peter Doskozil introduced a proposal envisaging the withdrawal from the EU relocation program at the cabinet meeting, arguing that Austria had already “exceeded” its refugee quota.

Austria should “pull out” from the program, as it is already “one of the countries that bear the heaviest [refugee] burden,” Doskozil said, pointing out that the number of asylum seekers per capita in Austria amounts to 4,587 people per one million Austrians. He added that Vienna's figures are higher than that in Italy, where it actually accounts for only 1,998 asylum requests per one million citizens, as reported by the Austrian APA news agency.

The interior ministry then expressed its support for Doskozil’s proposal and said that it “absolutely agrees with the content [of the proposal] and approves” it. However, later, Sobotka emphasized that he would support the move only if Kern would discuss the issue with Brussels and the proposal itself would undergo a legal review.

However, Austria’s move has already provoked an angry reaction in Brussels, which urged Vienna to comply with its commitments under the program, adding that no country can withdraw from the refugee quota system without consequences.

"Austria is now expected to fulfill its legal obligation under the council decision to start relocating,” EU spokesperson Natasha Bertraud said, as cited by the German dpa news agency. She also added that Vienna “can only choose to act outside the law, which we would find both deeply regrettable and not without consequences.”

Austria’s withdrawal could be another blow to the EU resettlement and relocation program that has not been particularly successful so far.

In February, it was reported that EU member states only relocated slightly more than 15,000 asylum seekers from Italy, Greece, and Turkey out of 160,000 the EU initially pledged to resettle under its controversial refugee quota system.

Apart from Austria that enjoyed its exemption from the program until recently, Hungary and Poland also did not accept any refugees under this system, while Slovakia took in only nine people out of 902 asylum seekers allocated to it under the scheme.

In October 2016, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said that his country is ready to sue the European Commission over mandatory refugee resettlement quotas, warning that if Brussels does not take the issue off the table, Budapest will wage “a big battle” and initiate “a serious legal debate.”

Meanwhile, some 26,600 new refugees reached Europe in the first three months of 2017, dpa reports, adding that 164,000 asylum seekers came to Europe over the same period in 2016.