Austria sends refugees to Slovakia

Just 18 of an agreed 500 Syrian asylum-seekers arrived in Slovakia on Thursday under a deal with EU neighbour Austria that has sparked protest in the village where they will stay temporarily.

Austria sends refugees to Slovakia
An elderly man from Aleppo, Syria, waits for news of whether he can travel to Germany with his granddaughter. Photo: Kim Traill

Depending on whether their asylum requests are recognised, the Syrians will either be ultimately returned to Austria or deported from the EU, Slovak interior ministry spokeswoman Michaela Paulenova told AFP.

The 18 men were transferred by bus from Austria's Salzburg to a temporary asylum camp in Gabcikovo, a southwestern Slovak village of 5,400 people.

Five hundred asylum-seekers are to be temporarily accommodated in Gabcikovo under the agreement with Vienna.

“This number will be reached in the following two years. We have no information on how many asylum-seekers and when they will arrive. It's up to the Austrian interior ministry,” Paulenova said.

Gabickovo held a referendum last month in which 97 percent of voters rejected the temporary asylum camp, but the interior ministry “is not obliged to act according to its results”, Paulenova said.

Getting off the bus on Thursday, one asylum-seeker thanked “all the good people” for the possibility of staying in Slovakia, local media reported.

But villager reaction on social media was cold.

“Who wants them here anyway? I know I don't,” Gabcikovo resident Beata Lelkes wrote on Facebook.

“Many homeless here would appreciate accommodation like they (migrants) are getting,” resident Zsuzsanna Varga added.

The nation of 5.4 million people is among several eastern EU members staunchly against a system of fixed quotas proposed by the European Commission to distribute 160,000 refugees among the bloc's 28 members.

On Wednesday, leftist Prime Minister Robert Fico alleged the EU was no longer safe and raised the spectre of terrorists entering Slovakia under the guise of refugees, a possibility experts deem unlikely.


‘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.