Austria migrant cap angers Greece amid domino effect fears
Austria on Friday introduced a daily cap on asylum-seekers, sparking EU fears of a domino effect along the Balkan migrant trail and a threat from Greece to veto an accord keeping Britain in the bloc.
The arrival of more than a million refugees and migrants in Europe last year has caused a chain reaction of border clampdowns among several member states.
As the main gateway into the bloc, Athens is worried that the restrictions will leave tens of thousands of people stranded on its territory.
Instead, Greece has pinned its hopes on the EU and Turkey firming up a deal to stem the migration flow at a special summit on March 6.
“We are asking for a unanimous decision that until March 6, no state will unilaterally close its borders…. If not, the Greek government will not approve the conclusion text,” a Greek government source told AFP Friday, referring to the accord being hammered out in Brussels on Britain’s EU future.
Under the Germany-backed EU proposal to be discussed in March, Turkey would close its borders and then fly refugees to Europe for resettlement in exchange for three billion euros.
However, central European countries are opposing the resettlement scheme and are instead pushing to seal Greece off from the passport-free Schengen zone.
Big rifts have opened up in the 28-nation bloc as the continent grapples with its biggest migration crisis since World War II, which shows no sign of abating.
More than 80,000 people — many of them children — have endured the perilous journey across the Aegean Sea since January, with most fleeing war and violence in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.
The UN’s children agency warned Friday that the number of children dying was on the rise.
“An average of two children have drowned every day since September 2015,” UNICEF said, describing the short sea stretch between Turkey and Greece “as among the deadliest routes in the world for refugees and migrants”.
Meanwhile, the EU border agency Frontex told AFP on Friday it had already detected 140,000 illegal border crossings so far this year.
In particular, Frontex noted a 55-percent increase “in flows coming to Italy from Libya” compared with January last year.
– ‘Put the brakes on’ –
In Austria, a maximum of 80 migrants per day are now being allowed to claim asylum. Vienna is also limiting the daily number of people transiting through to seek asylum in a neighbouring state to 3,200.
The move sparked an angry reaction from Brussels calling it “incompatible” with EU law.
But Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner warned on Friday the cap could be lowered even further, saying: “We need to put the brakes on.”
Following Austria’s tighter measures, Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia have also tightened their borders.
Once the limits at Austria’s main border crossing with Slovenia have been reached, “the borders will be closed,” police spokesman Fritz Grundnig told AFP on Friday.
However, “not a single migrant has arrived since yesterday (afternoon) and we don’t expect any to arrive today because of the bad weather,” he added.
The asylum-seeker cap is in line with Austria’s announcement last month that it would only take in 37,500 asylum-seekers this year — sharply down from the 90,000 it accepted in 2015, making it one of the bloc’s highest recipients on a per-basis capita.
Vienna has joined the so-called Visegrad Four (V4) group — Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic — in their call for tighter EU controls inside Schengen.
“I made clear, if everyone would take as much as Austria… it would be two million in the European Union just in this year,” Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann said Thursday in Brussels.
Germany — which received more than one million asylum claims in 2015 — acknowledged that the EU “must see quickly if measures (agreed with Turkey) work”.
A meeting with Turkey and the leaders of 11 EU countries had been planned before the EU summit on Thursday, but was cancelled after Turkey’s premier Ahmet Davutoglu pulled out following a bomb attack in Ankara.
Meanwhile Portugal said on Friday it had offered to take in an additional 5,800 asylum-seekers, on top of 4,500 already accepted, to help ease the pressure on countries “where the migration pressure is strongest”, including Austria, Sweden, Italy and Greece.