The Austrian government Wednesday passed a law that would give its authorities the right to turn away migrants at its border within an hour if it believed public order would be at risk. It also threatened to erect a razor wire fence along its border with Italy.
The law, which is expected to pass quickly and unchallenged in the parliament’s upper chamber, allows the federal government to declare a state of emergency and drastically curtail the right to seek asylum at Austria’s borders.
The move was immediately condemned by Gianni Pittella, the Italian leader of the S&D group in the European Parliament, who told EurActiv.com that the Austrian move was a "serious mistake".
"The S&D Group considers the building of a preventive barrier at the Italian-Austrian Brenner border to be a serious mistake; one in stark contrast to the values and rules of the European Union. Hence, we urge the European Commission to assess whether the decision of the Austrian government complies with Schengen and EU rules. Europe must be a space of integration, cultural diversity, respect and human rights."
Campaign group Human Rights Watch denounced the move as a "blow to the rights of asylum seekers", saying the law fails to define exactly what could trigger and justify the imposition of these special measures.
"These measures constitute a legal wall to asylum just as despicable as a razor-wire fence. Austria should be working with other European Union countries to make sure people have a fair chance to get the protection they need, not taking unilateral decisions to pass asylum seekers around like hot potatoes," said Judith Sunderland, acting deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
The law will allow the government, with the approval of the Main Committee in parliament, to declare "special measures for the maintenance of public order and the safeguarding of internal security" in the event of significant arrivals of migrants and asylum seekers at Austria’s borders.
Nils Muiznieks, the Council of Europe commissioner for human rights, called the measures "highly problematic" and urged Austria not to move away from its obligations under international and EU law.
According to Human Rights Watch, the law marks a further hardening of Austria’s asylum policies. In mid-February, Austria instituted a daily cap of 80 asylum applications at its borders, a move European Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos called "plainly incompatible" with EU law.