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Austria joins Germany in sending back refugees

Austria's interior minister has said her country will no longer allow refugees to pass freely through its borders. From next week, those who do not wish to seek asylum in Austria or Germany may be sent back to Slovenia.

Austria announced on Friday that it will begin next week to refuse entry to migrants seeking to pass through to Scandinavia. Following Germany's lead, Vienna plans to send as many refugees as possible back to its southern border.

"Right now on the Austrian-German border, only those seeking asylum in Germany are being allowed in. Those who want to go further are being turned back," Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner said in a radio interview.

"We will stop them directly on our southern border as of the end of next week," she said, alluding to Austria's frontier with Slovenia.

Hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees have streamed through Austria and into Germany as they flee conflict and poverty in the Middle East, Afghanistan, and North Africa. Around 90,000 have applied for asylum in Austria itself, but many more wish to go on to Germany or even further north to Denmark, Sweden, and Finland.

Criticism of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's open-door policy reached a fever pitch after a mass of sexual assaults occurred in the city of Cologne on New Year's Eve, many of them at the hands of recent immigrants. Since then, Germany has down a bit of an about-face in its refugee strategy and begun to send more and more asylum seekers back to Austria.

Between 200 and 300 people have been arriving back in Austria each day.

Coalition partners at odds in Vienna

In Vienna, the coalition parties the Social Democrats and the Austrian People's Party have agreed that something must be done to reduce the number of new arrivals, but until now they have been unable to agree upon a unified strategy.

In the same radio interview, Johanna Mikl-Leitner said the 120,000 asylum claims authorities expect Austria to receive in 2016 is "impossible" for such a small country.

However, Chancellor Werner Faymann has not moved in his assertion that asylum is a universal right that cannot be capped. Instead, he has joined his German counterpart Angela Merkel in calling for a redistribution of refugees across Europe.

es/jil (Reuters, dpa)

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