Austria strengthens border checks with Italy despite lower migrant arrivals

Austria's interior minister argues there is no need for national borders within the EU, yet Austria has already placed soldiers on roads and railway stations near the frontier with Italy to police all incoming transport.

Austria strengthens border checks with Italy despite lower migrant arrivals
Photo: AFP

Austria has diverted three of four lanes on the A13 motorway (Die Brennerautobahn) – 25 kilometres away from the Italian border – and has placed soldiers at a frontier railway station.  

Hundreds of cars and trucks coming from Italy have been stopped and searched on the A13 motorway, according to a report in Italian daily Repubblica.

At least 15 soldiers are also on duty at Matrei am Brenner train station, checking passenger and cargo trains arriving from Italy, claims the daily. 

It added that two women and six men, from West African nations Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast, were found alive hiding in the empty fuel tank of a train, normally reserved for liquified gas. 

Austria recently announced it would send army back-up to help police its borders. The measures are in response to efforts by illegal migrants  to enter Austria from Italy. Between 700 and 1,000 illegal immigrants are stopped in Tyrol every month, states a report in German newspaper

Yet official Austrian government statistics show that the number of asylum applications more than halved from 88,000 in 2015 to 42,000 in 2016. 

“Surprising and unjustified”

The Italian government expressed its disappointment at Austria's military build-up on its shared border in early July, with Interior Minister Marco Minniti calling the move “surprising and unjustified”.

The disappointment had little impact on the neighbour's decision-making process. “We must decide ourselves who enters our country and who doesn't,” says Austrian Integration Minister Sebastian Kurz, cited in Austria's Der Standard daily.  

“Migration to Austria is still at a level that is too high,” said Minister Kurz in a statement released on Wednesday. 

Austria had originally said there was no need for a hard border with Italy but appears to have u-turned recently in light of attempts by migrants to reach Austria from Italy via quieter border crossings.

Kurz had previously asked Italy to prevent migrants from reaching its mainland from Italian islands like Lampedusa, where many migrants and refugees first land in Europe. 

“We hope that ferry services for illegal migrants will be halted between Italian islands like Lampedusa and the Italian mainland,” Kurz said in July this year.

In 2015, Austria – like Germany – opened its borders to refugees fleeing conflicts in Syria, the Middle East and Central Asia, only to close them again in late 2016.

Austrian Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka however, careful to toe the EU's official line, says national borders can only exist within Schengen when other nations fail to secure their own borders.

“The removal of border controls within the Schengen area is justifiable for me only if the European external borders are adequately protected. As long as this does not succeed, there is no way of passing national measures,” said Sobotka.

Earlier this month, The Local Italy reported that Austria had sent 70 soldiers to patrol the border with Italy in response to 16,000 asylum cases in the first half of 2017 and an apparent increase in the number of illegal migrants trying to reach Austria by rail and road from Italy. 

Integration expert Kenan Küngör, cited in Austrian newspaper Der Standard, argues that Austria's new-found “pessimism” towards migration may be to do with having “not received the gratitude” it expected after opening its borders in 2015.

It is also to do with a “desire for control” in the face of “the future uncertainty surrounding migration,” argues Küngör.

Other experts say Sobotka's Austrian People's Party is taking a more conservative stand on migration to keep out the far right in legislative elections expected on October 15th, 2017. 

Meanwhile, the number of new migrant arrivals by sea from North Africa to Italy more than halved between June and July 2017, according to UNHCR data

READ MORE: Road to Italy gets tougher for migrants


How Europe’s population is changing and what the EU is doing about it

The populations of countries across Europe are changing, with some increasing whilst others are falling. Populations are also ageing meaning the EU is having to react to changing demographics.

How Europe's population is changing and what the EU is doing about it

After decades of growth, the population of the European Union decreased over the past two years mostly due to the hundreds of thousands of deaths caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The latest data from the EU statistical office Eurostat show that the EU population was 446.8 million on 1 January 2022, 172,000 fewer than the previous year. On 1 January 2020, the EU had a population of 447.3 million.

This trend is because, in 2020 and 2021 the two years marked by the crippling pandemic, there have been more deaths than births and the negative natural change has been more significant than the positive net migration.

But there are major differences across countries. For example, in numerical terms, Italy is the country where the population has decreased the most, while France has recorded the largest increase.

What is happening and how is the EU reacting?

In which countries is the population growing?

In 2021, there were almost 4.1 million births and 5.3 million deaths in the EU, so the natural change was negative by 1.2 million (more broadly, there were 113,000 more deaths in 2021 than in 2020 and 531,000 more deaths in 2020 than in 2019, while the number of births remained almost the same).

Net migration, the number of people arriving in the EU minus those leaving, was 1.1 million, not enough to compensate.

A population growth, however, was recorded in 17 countries. Nine (Belgium, Denmark, Ireland, France, Cyprus, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands and Sweden) had both a natural increase and positive net migration.

READ ALSO: IN NUMBERS: Five things to know about Germany’s foreign population

In eight EU countries (the Czech Republic, Germany, Estonia, Spain, Lithuania, Austria, Portugal and Finland), the population increased because of positive net migration, while the natural change was negative.

The largest increase in absolute terms was in France (+185,900). The highest natural increase was in Ireland (5.0 per 1,000 persons), while the biggest growth rate relative to the existing population was recorded in Luxembourg, Ireland, Cyprus and Malta (all above 8.0 per 1,000 persons).

In total, 22 EU Member States had positive net migration, with Luxembourg (13.2 per 1 000 persons), Lithuania (12.4) and Portugal (9.6) topping the list.

Births and deaths in the EU from 1961 to 2021 (Eurostat)

Where is the population declining?

On the other hand, 18 EU countries had negative rates of natural change, with deaths outnumbering births in 2021.

Ten of these recorded a population decline. In Bulgaria, Italy, Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia population declined due to a negative natural change, while net migration was slightly positive.

In Croatia, Greece, Latvia, Romania and Slovakia, the decrease was both by negative natural change and negative net migration.

READ ALSO: Italian class sizes set to shrink as population falls further

The largest fall in population was reported in Italy, which lost over a quarter of a million (-253,100).

The most significant negative natural change was in Bulgaria (-13.1 per 1,000 persons), Latvia (-9.1), Lithuania (-8.7) and Romania (-8.2). On a proportional basis, Croatia and Bulgaria recorded the biggest population decline (-33.1 per 1,000 persons).

How is the EU responding to demographic change?

From 354.5 million in 1960, the EU population grew to 446.8 million on 1 January 2022, an increase of 92.3 million. If the growth was about 3 million persons per year in the 1960s, it slowed to about 0.7 million per year on average between 2005 and 2022, according to Eurostat.

The natural change was positive until 2011 and turned negative in 2012 when net migration became the key factor for population growth. However, in 2020 and 2021, this no longer compensated for natural change and led to a decline.

READ ALSO: IN NUMBERS: One in four Austrian residents now of foreign origin

Over time, says Eurostat, the negative natural change is expected to continue given the ageing of the population if the fertility rate (total number of children born to each woman) remains low.

This poses questions for the future of the labour market and social security services, such as pensions and healthcare.

The European Commission estimates that by 2070, 30.3 per cent of the EU population will be 65 or over compared to 20.3 per cent in 2019, and 13.2 per cent is projected to be 80 or older compared to 5.8 per cent in 2019.

The number of people needing long-term care is expected to increase from 19.5 million in 2016 to 23.6 million in 2030 and 30.5 million in 2050.

READ ALSO: How foreigners are changing Switzerland

However, demographic change impacts different countries and often regions within the same country differently.

When she took on the Presidency of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen appointed Dubravka Šuica, a Croatian politician, as Commissioner for Democracy and Demography to deal with these changes.

Among measures in the discussion, in January 2021, the Commission launched a debate on Europe’s ageing society, suggesting steps for higher labour market participation, including more equality between women and men and longer working lives.

In April, the Commission proposed measures to make Europe more attractive for foreign workers, including simplifying rules for non-EU nationals who live on a long-term basis in the EU. These will have to be approved by the European Parliament and the EU Council.

In the fourth quarter of this year, the Commission also plans to present a communication on dealing with ‘brain drain’ and mitigate the challenges associated with population decline in regions with low birth rates and high net emigration.

This article is published in cooperation with Europe Street News, a news outlet about citizens’ rights in the EU and the UK.