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Austria adopts harsh asylum laws amid far-right surge

Johann Groder, APA / AFP | People protest against stricter controls at the border station "Brenner" between Austria and Italy on April 24, 2016

Austrian lawmakers on Wednesday passed one of Europe's toughest asylum laws as the country's political leaders struggle to halt the surging far-right.

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The controversial bill, which passed by 98 to 67, allows the government to declare a "state of emergency" if the migrant numbers suddenly rise and reject most asylum-seekers directly at the border, including those from Syria and other war-torn countries.

Rights groups, religious leaders and opposition parties have blasted the legislation as a violation of international human rights conventions.

Earlier, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi denounced Austria’s plan to curb migrant flows by tightening border controls at the Alpine Brenner Pass between the two countries.

The Austria plan was “shamelessly against European rules, as well as being against history, against logic and against the future", Renzi said in a statement.

But Austrian Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka insisted his country had no other choice as long as "so many other European Union members fail to do their part" in relation to a surge in the number of migrants on the continent.

"We cannot shoulder the whole world's burden," said Sobotka.

More than a million people, primarily from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, landed in Europe last year, triggering the continent's worst migration crisis since the aftermath of World War II.

Wedged between Europe's two main refugee routes – the Balkans and Italy – Austria received around 90,000 asylum requests in 2015, the second-highest in the bloc on a per capita basis.

‘National security’

To reduce the flow, the EU recently struck a controversial deal with Ankara, under which all "irregular" migrants reaching Greece after March 20 will be returned to Turkey.

Although the pact has led to a sharp drop in arrivals, the International Organisation for Migration last week warned that the numbers were "once again ticking up".

Under Austria's new law, the government can now declare an emergency if the migrant flow threatens the country's "national security".

Border authorities will then only grant access to refugees facing safety threats in a neighbouring transit country or whose relatives are already in Austria. Some groups including minors and pregnant women will however be exempt from the rule.

Refugees stranded

The record number of refugees has boosted populist fringe parties across Europe, pressuring traditionally centrist governments to adopt a much firmer stance on migrants.

The restrictions in Austria are similar to tough rules introduced by the right-wing government in neighbouring Hungary last year.

"These are extremely dangerous tools that are being sharpened here, especially if they fall into the wrong hands," warned the leader of the small NEOS opposition party, Mathias Strolz, ahead of the vote.

It came after the candidate of the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe), Norbert Hofer, sent shock waves through the political establishment by winning the first round of a presidential ballot on Sunday.

The two candidates of the ruling centrist coalition failed to even make it into the runoff on May 22.

The FPOe also looks set to do well in the next scheduled general election in 2018.

Trying to stem voter desertion to the far-right, Austria's government erected border fences and introduced an annual cap on asylum-seekers.

It also pressured other countries along the Balkan trail to close their frontiers earlier this year, effectively shutting the route to migrants.

The clampdown left some 54,000 migrants currently stranded in Greece.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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