Minister under fire for refugee tent shelter plan

The Austrian government is facing criticism following its announcement that it will house new refugees in tent shelters.

Minister under fire for refugee tent shelter plan
Tents being set up in Linz, Upper Austria. Photo: LPD OÖ/Michael Dietrich

The interior ministry announced the measures on Thursday in response to a surge of asylum seekers – over 600 asylum applications have been made this week alone, mainly from people displaced by the wars in Afghanistan and Syria.

Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner (ÖVP) said at an emergency summit held in the ministry on Friday that the tent shelters are necessary due to an “explosive increase” in the number of refugees and are a “last resort to protect against homelessness”.

The government says two tent shelters will be set up in Upper Austria, and one in Salzburg.

A deportation centre in Styria will also house refugees, and a refugee compound in Vienna's third district is being reactivated on Friday. 

However, Catholic charity Caritas and the Red Cross have criticised the plan as cynical and insufficient and called for an alternative form of accommodation.

Caritas general-secretary in Vienna, Klaus Schwertner, said that proper shelters should be found to house the 300 refugees slated to move into tents.

He added that he believes the government may be trying to put pressure on the European Union with shock images of the migrants in the camps.

The Secretary General of the Red Cross, Werner Kerschbaum, said that Austria is one of the richest countries in the world and it shouldn’t be necessary that refugees have to live in tents. “For us, this is the worst possible solution,” he said.

Greens leader Eva Glawischnig said that Mikl-Leitner was exaggerating when she declared “several hundred asylum seekers as a state of emergency”.

She said that if a small country like Lebanon could take in hundreds of thousands of refugees from neighbouring Syria then Austria should be able to cope.

She added that Mikl-Leitner had failed to plan for the predicted rise in refugees from Syria and called for vacant army barracks to be made available as accommodation.

Last year Germany also had to resort to using huge tents and shipping containers to shelter growing numbers of refugees. 

Austria, a country of 8.5 million inhabitants, supports the EU's controversial migration plan launched earlier this week.

The proposal foresees the mandatory redistribution of asylum seekers across the 28-member bloc, to help ease the burden on southern nations where refugees first arrive by boat.

The scheme has been opposed by a number of countries, including Britain and Hungary.

Austria received more than 28,000 asylum requests in 2014, three times the European average relative to population size. This year, 14,200 demands were already made between January and April.

Additional reporting by AFP. 



‘Discrimination’: Austria’s benefit cuts for immigrants ‘go against free movement’

Benefit cuts imposed by Austria on immigrants whose children live in their country of origin contradict EU law becasue they constitute "discrimination on the ground of nationality", a legal adviser at the bloc's top court said on Thursday.

A picture of the sign and logo of the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg
A picture of the sign and logo of the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg on January 13, 2020. (Photo by JOHN THYS / AFP)

The opinion is the latest legal hitch to befall a series of measures — imposed by a previous government that included the far-right — which sought to restrict benefit payments to foreigners.

Richard de la Tour, advocate general of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), said the cuts to child benefits constituted “an infringement of the right of free movement conferred on EU citizens”.

The specific case relates to reforms that came into effect in 2019 which indexed child benefits according to where the recipient’s children live.

This meant reduced payments for tens of thousands of eastern Europeans who work in Austria — notably in the care sector — but whose children remain in their countries of origin.

The advocate general’s advice is not binding on the court but it is seen as influential.

De la Tour found that the cuts were “indirect discrimination on the ground of nationality which is permissible only if it is objectively justified”, and that Austria had failed to do so.

They contravened the principle that “if a migrant worker pays social contributions and taxes in a member state, he or she must be able to benefit from the same allowances as nationals of that state”, he added.

In 2020 the European Commission, supported by six eastern member states, brought an action before the CJEU claiming Austria was “failing to fulfil its obligations”.

Former Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz had said he hoped the cuts would save 114 million euros ($130 million) a year but in 2019 they recouped 62 million euros.

The former coalition also introduced benefit cuts for immigrants who failed to reach a certain level of German, but those measures were subsequently overturned by the Austrian courts.

The government that introduced in the cuts was brought down in a corruption scandal in May 2019.

It included the centre-right Austrian People’s Party (OeVP), which is still the senior partner in the current government.

However their current coalition partners, the Greens, opposed the benefit cuts at the time.