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REFUGEE CRISIS

IMMIGRATION

Resources stretched as 20,000 refugees arrive

More than 20,000 refugees entered Austria aboard crowded buses and trains over the weekend, with the Red Cross warning of shortages as temporary accommodation is becoming overcrowded.

Resources stretched as 20,000 refugees arrive
Refugees waiting at Nickelsdorf. Photo: APA/Ronald Zak

At the Austrian town of Nickelsdorf on the Hungarian border, some 7,000 refugees and migrants arrived on Sunday alone, a pile-up that caused long waits for onward transport. A snaking line of arrivals awaited buses, with others hoping for taxis to take them to Vienna.

“It's known that once you get to Austria, you've arrived,” said Saeed, a 23-year-old from Damascus who is hoping his odyssey will end in Germany.

“As we approach the Europe that we want, people are getting nicer and nicer.”

Budapest suddenly reopened the Horgos-Roszke 1 crossing on Sunday, the closure of which had added distance and uncertainty for those undertaking the gruelling journey across the Balkans into western Europe, with Croatia saying more than 25,000 had entered its territory since Wednesday.

Austria's Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner has said she will consider granting refugees temporary limited asylum status – although the majority of people arriving in Austria hope to continue on to Germany.

5,120 asylum applications have been made in Austria since the beginning of September. Applications have jumped to an average of around 300 per day since Germany reintroduced border controls.

Eastern European ministers are meeting on Monday to attempt to bridge stark differences over their refugee policies, as an escalating crisis saw thousands of migrants shunted from one border to another over the weekend.

Croatia said it could not cope with the huge influx and began redirecting migrants back towards Hungary or towards Slovenia, sparking angry reactions from both countries.

Both Zagreb and Budapest have stepped up efforts to move the huge crowds through and out of their territory as quickly as possible, with Croatia pushing a record 1,200 migrants onto neighbouring Hungary in the space of an hour on Sunday.

The right-wing government in Budapest has already built a razor-wire barrier along much of its border with Croatia, after sealing off its frontier with Serbia in a bid to keep migrants out.

The talks on Monday between the foreign ministers of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Romania and Latvia with their counterpart from Luxembourg, which currently holds the EU presidency, are aimed at addressing divides between neighbouring states.

EU interior ministers will also meet on Tuesday, in the hope that significant progress will be made by the time a bloc-wide emergency summit opens on Wednesday.

The continent's worst migration crisis since World War II has caused a deep rift between EU members over how to distribute the arrivals.

The massive influx has raised questions over the fate of the Schengen agreement allowing borderless travel across most countries within the 28-nation bloc, with several of them imposing border controls.

There are also bitter divisions over how to distribute the influx fairly between EU members, with several Eastern European countries staunchly opposed to plans for mandatory quotas of refugees.

IMMIGRATION

‘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.

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