Tense talks as Italy fumes over Austria migrant 'slap'

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Austria and Italy were set for showdown talks on Thursday. Photo: Raul Alejandro Rodriguez/Flickr
12:26 CEST+02:00
Italy and Austria were set for showdown talks Thursday as Italian politicians and media reacted furiously to Vienna's new anti-migrant measures that could close the border between the two countries.

Austrian Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka, who has vigorously defended the controversial package which was driven by a surge of the far right, was due in Rome to explain his government's plans to Italian counterpart Angelo Alfano.

Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has warned that closing the famous Brenner Pass in the Alps would be a "flagrant breach of European rules" and is pushing the European Commission to force Austria to hold off on a move that many fear could come to symbolize the death of Europe's Schengen system of open borders.

But the Vienna government is under intense domestic pressure to stem the volume of asylum seekers and other migrants arriving on its soil with the far-right surging in polls.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon hit out Thursday at what he called "increasingly  restrictive" refugee policies in Europe, saying he was "alarmed by the growing xenophobia here" and elsewhere in Europe, in a speech to the Austrian parliament.

Wedged between the Italian and Balkan routes to northern Europe, Austria received 90,000 asylum requests last year, the second highest in per capita terms of any EU country.

'Whole world's burden'

Legislation approved Wednesday by the Austrian parliament enables the government to respond to spikes in migrant arrivals by declaring a state of emergency which provides for asylum seekers to be turned away at border points.

"We cannot shoulder the whole world's burden," Sobotka said Wednesday in defence of a law denounced by rights groups as a betrayal of Austria's history as a place of refuge, most notably for dissidents fleeing the old Soviet bloc.

Some 250 police have been deployed at the Brenner Pass and preparations are under way for the construction of a 370-metre (yard) barrier which would be up to four metres (13 foot) high in places, that is due for completion by the end of May.

"Brenner: Vienna's slap in the face," was the headline in La Stampa daily, in a reflection of the outraged tone of virtually all the coverage.

The pass is a major transport link between southern and northern Europe with an average of 2,500 lorries and 15,000 cars using it every day.

Austria is preparing for a potential closure of the pass as fears grow that migrant arrivals in Italy could spike this summer as a result of the effective closure of the Balkan route into Europe.

Italy insists there is no evidence of that happening and that it is taking steps to prevent it if it does.

Rome also maintains that the numbers of migrants refused asylum in Austria and returning to Italy is rising.

According to the interior ministry, 2,051 people -- mainly from Pakistan and Afghanistan -- returned to Italy in the first four months of this year, compared with 3,143 for the whole of 2015.

Rome this week unveiled plans to fingerprint migrants crossing the Mediterranean as soon as they are picked up by rescue boats.

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Fears of arrival spike

There have long been tensions with other EU countries over migrants arriving in Italy and travelling north without being registered.

If they are not registered, countries like Austria and France and popular destination states like Germany and Sweden do not have the option of sending them back to Italy.

Under the EU's much-criticised Dublin Treaty, asylum claims must be processed by the first country in which refugees arrive.

Italy was warned last year by the European Commission that it must make its registration procedures more efficient.

But Italian officials say the country cannot cope alone with the migrant influx.

More than 350,000 people from all over the world have reached Italy on boats from Libya since the start of 2014, as Europe battles its biggest migration crisis since World War II.

Fears of a spike in arrivals have given added urgency to attempts to find a lasting solution to the crisis and Italy is pushing a plan to introduce NATO naval patrols off Libya in time for the summer -peak season for people smuggling.

Modelled on an existing NATO operation in waters between Turkey and Greece, the plan has been backed by US President Barack Obama and is expected to be approved by alliance leaders at a summit in Warsaw in July.

Italy has also proposed an EU-funded scheme to offer African countries cash to cooperate with the fast-track repatriation of migrants deemed to have no claim to asylum in Europe.

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