VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria’s parliament on Wednesday passed tough new asylum measures, including a process under which migrants could be turned away at the border within an hour, which could be activated if lawmakers decree public order is threatened.
Austria has mostly served as a conduit into Germany for refugees and migrants from the Middle East and Africa but it has also absorbed around 100,000 asylum seekers since last summer.
After initially welcoming refugees, the government capped the number of asylum claims it would accept this year to 37,500. It has received more than 16,000 claims since the beginning of the year.
Austria has also been imposing restrictions on movement, including coordinating border closures with nearby Balkan countries over the past months and it is now preparing stricter border controls at the important Brenner crossing with Italy.
While Austria’s approach has angered other European Union states, Vienna says this is necessary to safeguard public order.
To make use of the new measures, the government will require parliament to confirm that public order and security are under threat.
Under a clause that then becomes active, asylum will only be granted to people who are likely to suffer persecution if they are sent back to the country they come from and refugees who already have close family members living in Austria.
The new ruling comes days after Austria’s far-right and an independent candidate dumped the ruling centrist parties out of the race for presidency.
It makes Austria one of the country’s with the toughest asylum rules in Europe, prompting Human Rights Watch to call it “a blow to the rights of asylum seekers”.
“This harsh border regime will effectively block access for most asylum seekers to a fair and efficient procedure in Austria, and deny them the right to an effective remedy,” the organization said in a statement.
Chancellor Werner Faymann, a social democrat, defended the stricter rules against criticism in parliament, including from his own party, and from other European countries.
Security and asylum questions cannot be solved by Austria alone but needed international engagement, Faymann said, adding that he had to ensure Austrians feel safe.
Defence Minister Hans Peter Doskozil said in March when he introduced the planned measures that migrants would only be able to file their application for asylum directly at border crossings in the future and not any longer at police stations.
A decision on whether to grant asylum would be made within an hour and those not accepted would be sent back immediately.
The activated clause would be valid for up to six months and could be extended by parliament for a maximum of three times.
Starting from last November, Austria will only grant asylum for a period of three years.
Reporting by Kirsti Knolle; Editing by Francois Murphy and Alison Williams