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Germany has received the most attention and Hungary the most denunciation, but in many ways it has been the country in between that has served as the bellwether of Europe’s ongoing refugee crisis. Back in September, Austria became one of the first countries along the “Western Balkan route” to find itself awash in migrants after Germany unexpectedly announced it was re-imposing checks on its southern border. A month later, it became the first country inside the EU’s passport-free Schengen zone to reconstruct fences at the border with another Schengen member, neighbouring Slovenia. Then last week it started turning away asylum seekers – though only those who admitted they were trying to get to Scandinavia.
But yesterday, the Austrian government may have taken its most significant step yet by announcing it would cap the number of asylum claims it will accept. Werner Faymann, the Austrian chancellor, said the country would only allow 37,500 to be admitted this year, down from 90,000 who applied for asylum status in 2015. Over the next four years, the limit will be 127,500. “We cannot in Austria take in all asylum seekers,” Mr Faymann said in Vienna. Frankfurter Allegemeine Zeitung has this excellent analysis piece that points out Mr Faymann long resisted such a cap, but was forced into the announcement by mounting pressure from within his own government.
The move raises serious legal questions, since the Geneva Convention on refugees – of which Austria is a founding signatory – prevents countries from expelling asylum seekers without a hearing, unless they can find a reason on national security grounds. Asked if the European Commission had come to a legal opinion on such quotas, a spokeswoman said it hadn’t – though only because up to now no country had sought such caps. But she hinted Geneva, which is incorporated into EU law, could present a roadblock. “We don’t practice pushbacks, we do not turn away people without first assessing their asylum applications on an individual basis, and this is the process that’s carried out across the EU,” said Natasha Bertaud, the commission’s spokeswoman on refugee issues. Read more