Austria went ahead and instituted a daily cap on the number of asylum seekers it will accept, in spite of a warning from the European Union that its plan didn’t comply with European Human Rights laws or the Geneva Convention.
“They have their legal advisers and I have legal advisers,” Austria’s 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. The 101st woman will be sent away. Both are equally absurd,” said Alev Korun, a member of the Green party responsible for the migration and integration portfolio.
“It is the duty of all EU countries to take human rights laws seriously,” she added.
In fact, no refugees requested asylum Friday in Austria and only “a few hundred” are expected at the weekend, said Karl-Heinz Grundboek, a spokesman for the interior ministry. Police spokesman Fritz Grundnig told Deutsche Welle Friday that at least 400 people were expected Saturday. Only a trickling of people have arrived because of the weather, he added.
Like the EU, Austrians divided over handling of crises
The EU is openly split on how to handle Europe’s largest migration crisis 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.
Spearheaded by Germany, some countries support a deal whereby 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.
However, countries along the route – including Croatia, Slovenia and Austria – want Macedonia and Bulgaria to seal off their frontier with Greece, effectively excluding Athens from Europe’s passport-free Schengen zone and 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 at the Turkish border attempting to flee bombing of Aleppo 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. 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,” said Caritas Austria General Secretary Bernd Wachter.
Austria announced last month that it would take in 37,500 asylum seekers this year – sharply down from the 90,000 it accepted in 2015 – making it one of the bloc’s highest recipients on a per-basis capita. 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.
Austrian volunteerism still high
But 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% of the communities in Austria have not accepted, or refused, their quotas.
Rastl believes that a silent majority of Austrians still support a welcoming 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.
Korun, in any case, said it is imperative that the EU devises 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, a member of Austria’s Green Party, praised conservative German Chancellor Angela Merkel for her steadfastness on the issue. “A few years ago I would have shaken my head if anyone told me I’d be supporting Merkel and her policies.”