When Austria closes its borders | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 20.01.2016
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When Austria closes its borders

Austria is considering much stricter border controls in an attempt to limit the influx of refugees. What would the consequences of such a move be?

Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz does not see national border controls as a sinister problem; quite the opposite, he says they are a potential "driver for a European solution" to the refugee crisis. Speaking on German public television's news magazine "Heute Journal," he said that if states all began setting limits on refugees and closing their borders, it could have a positive domino effect, because refugees would no longer be able to simply keep traveling further into Europe. Then, immigration numbers would go down. He says that so far the "pain of distress" has not reached high enough levels to force many countries along the refugee route through southeast Europe to take such a step.

Ever more border controls

Austria is not the only country that has reintroduced border controls. Sweden, Denmark, Germany and others have already done so. Like those other countries, Austria will not lock down its borders entirely, but rather strengthen its border controls. Although border controls are not actually provided for in the Schengen Agreement, they are allowed in "cases of serious threat to public order and domestic security." Yves Pascouau, an immigration expert at the European Policy Center, a Brussels think tank, is pleased that everyone has abided by the rules and informed the European Commission before taking action. Because if individual member states were to operate "outside of the Schengen rules, that would be the end of the Schengen Agreement."

Flüchtlinge Österreich Grenze Schnee Winter

Despite the cold weather, there are still a lot of refugees arriving to Europe

No right to asylum in Germany

A situation similar to that which could soon occur came about at the end of last year when Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia only admitted those people who, because of their origins, were most likely refugees. For those four countries, that meant people from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. No one else was allowed to pass. Slovenia, on the northern end of the route, was the first to start. "Then a domino effect began, because no other country along the route wanted to be stuck with these people," says Melita Sunjic, spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). At the time, just a few hundred people were denied passage. The scenario could now repeat itself, but this time on a much larger scale.

But can a country simply turn someone away at their border, even if they have no identity papers? Sunjic says no: "The Geneva refugee convention of 1951 says that I am allowed to enter into a country as long as I intend to apply for asylum in that country, even if I do not possess the proper documents." Each country along the Balkan route, whether EU member state or not, is a signatory of the Geneva refugee convention. Therefore, one has a legal right to an asylum process in each of those countries if one intends on asking them for protection. Yet, the UNHCR spokesperson says: "One does not have the right to choose which country one wants to receive asylum in." Thus, no refugee can demand that they are simply waved through until they arrive in Germany or Sweden. Should countries along the route allow refugees to pass, as has been the practice thus far, this happens because the individual transit country wants to save itself the trouble of asylum processing, admittance and possible deportation, or simply because they do not want refugees.

Dark warnings

Europaparlament Donald Tusk Debatte

Donald Tusk

Yves Pascouau believes that "we will have to live with the reality of internal border patrols for the next few months." If all countries implement them, however, the EU could face economic problems. "So far these have been minor, but that could change if the situation drags on." European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker recently issued an ominous warning: "Whoever kills Schengen, carries the internal market to its grave." This in turn could lead to unemployment issues that the Union "will not be able to control." And without Schengen and freedom of movement for employees, "the euro will make no sense" either. European Council President Donald Tusk has actually given Europe a deadline by which time it has to have solved the refugee crisis. Speaking before the European Parliament on Tuesday, he said, "We have no more than two months to get things under control." If not, "it could mean the collapse of Schengen."

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