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Austrian asylum cap

Alison Langley, ViennaFebruary 19, 2016

Despite warnings that such actions are illegal, the Austrian government has implemented a daily cap on asylum applicants entering. From Vienna, DW's Alison Langley writes that not everyone thinks that it is a good idea.

Österreich Slowenien Grenze Flüchtlinge
Image: DW/A. Langley

Austria went ahead and instituted a daily cap on the number of asylum applicants it will permit into the country in spite of a warning from the EU that the plan does not comply with European human rights laws or the Geneva Convention.

"They have their legal advisers, and I have legal advisers," Austrian Interior Minister Joanna Mikl-Leitner told public broadcaster ORF.

But not everyone agrees with the plan to allow a maximum of 80 immigrants per day to apply for asylum in Austria. Vienna is also limiting the daily number of people transiting through to seek asylum in Germany to 3,200.

"The announcement is akin to saying we will help only the first 100 women who have been battered," said Alev Korun, a member of the Green party responsible for the migration and integration portfolio. "The 101st woman will be sent away."

"It is the duty of all EU countries to take human rights laws seriously," Korun said.

In fact, nobody requested asylum on Friday in Austria and only "a few hundred" are expected at the weekend, said Karl-Heinz Grundböck, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry.

On Friday, police spokesman Fritz Grundnig told DW that at least 400 people were expected Saturday. Only a trickling of people have arrived because of the weather, he added.

Austrians divided

The EU is openly split on how to handle the largest number of refugees in Europe since World War II. Similarly, Austrians, too, are grappling with their conscience. "It's not easy. Public opinion is divided," said Roberta Rastl, a spokeswoman at Diakonie Austria, which has been at the forefront of helping refugees.

Österreich beschließt Obergrenze für Flüchtlinge
Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann has implemented a cap on asylum seekersImage: picture-alliance/dpa/H. Punz

Spearheaded by Germany, some countries support a deal in which Turkey would close its borders and then fly refugees to Europe for resettlement under a quota plan. "We agreed that our joint action plan with Turkey remains a priority and we must do all we can to succeed," European Council President Donald Tusk said early Friday at a two-day EU summit in Brussels.

A meeting to discuss that plan has been postponed until early March.

Countries along the route from Turkey to Germany - including Croatia, Slovenia and Austria - want Macedonia and Bulgaria to seal their borders with Greece, leaving thousands of people stranded. And they announced Thursday evening that they would begin a joint refugee registration point at the Macedonian-Greek border.

After watching daily reports of Syrians attempting to flee bombing of Aleppo at the border with Turkey and others drowning trying to cross the Aegean Sea, most Austrians appear to support a fair distribution of refugees - not just in their own country, but throughout the European Union. Countries who do not take in refugees should have their EU subsidies reduced, they believe.

"Leaving small children behind fences in the cold is inhuman and should not be the European way," Caritas Austria General Secretary Bernd Wachter said. "There aren't any simple solutions - that's clear - but we can't simply shut our eyes to the suffering of those who flee war."

Austria announced last month that it would take in 37,500 refugees this year - sharply down from the 90,000 it accepted in 2015 - one of the European Union's highest per capital totals. But even with the latest cap, Mikl-Leitner believes the country could still exceed that limit. "We're going to have to put the brakes on further," she said.

Österreich Slowenien Grenze Flüchtlinge
Guards reinforce a fence along part of the Austrian-Slovenia borderImage: DW/A. Langley

Volunteerism still high

Austrians are strongly divided about their own role in the face of no EU-wide agreement. "We're living in a bubble. Yes, some people are getting tired of the daily work (involved with supporting refugees)," Rastl said. "We don't believe the boat is full." But some 30 percent of the communities in Austria have not accepted, or refused, their quotas.

Rastl believes that a silent majority of Austrians still support a welcome policy. They are the volunteers who continue to teach German to people waiting for their papers; they are ones who continue to donate money, food and clothing.

The Green Korun, in any case, said it was imperative that the EU devise a policy as quickly as possible: "Otherwise, hundreds and thousands of more people will die and these politicians will be responsible. The situation is extremely difficult."

Korun also praised conservative German Chancellor Angela Merkel for her steadfastness on the issue. "A few years ago," she said, "I would have shaken my head if anyone told me I'd be supporting Merkel and her policies."