July 31, 2015 / 11:01 AM / 2 years ago

Austria admits flaws in handling refugees, pledges action

Asylum seekers walk next to the asylum processing center in Traiskirchen, Austria, July 31, 2015.Leonhard Foeger

VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria pledged on Friday to improve appalling conditions at its refugee centers and admitted its current laws were insufficient to meet what Chancellor Werner Faymann described as "Europe's biggest challenge".

Thousands of people from countries like Afghanistan or Syria have fled through the Balkans to Austria, pushing the number of asylum requests to 28,300 in the first six months of this year - more than the total for all of 2014.

More than 2,000 refugees at an asylum processing center in Traiskirchen, south of Vienna, have been left homeless for weeks, braving heat of around 40 degrees Celsius and rainstorms wrapped in blankets on the grass and in the street.

"Much has been done by the federal states to create more space," Faymann said. "But it was not enough."

Of the nine federal states in this Alpine country of 8.5 million people, only Vienna and neighboring Lower Austria had achieved the quota set by the government, he said.

To correct this, the chancellor announced a new draft law that would effectively enable the government to force reluctant local communities to meet their quotas for hosting refugees.

He said the law, which aims at providing accommodation for 80,000 to 160,000 migrants, should be ready this autumn.

The failure to meet quotas has caused an outcry among the public and human rights groups including Amnesty International, which has been granted access to the Traiskirchen center to assess the medical and human rights situation there.

Austria, which has demanded binding quotas to distribute migrants across Europe, this month announced it would send around 500 asylum seekers to Slovakia to relieve pressure on the overcrowded center in Traiskirchen.

The European Union earlier this month failed to agree on how to spread 40,000 asylum seekers among its members.

More than 150,000 migrants fleeing wars and poverty have reached Europe by sea so far in 2015, most of them arriving in Italy and Greece. Hundreds have drowned on the journey.

In France, some 3,000 migrants live in a makeshift camp near the entrance to the Channel Tunnel, hoping to board trucks and trains en route to Britain. French media say nine migrants have died since early June trying to make the crossing.

Reporting by Christoph Steitz and Shadia Nasralla; Editing by Tom Heneghan

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