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IMMIGRATION

UN chief slams ‘increasingly restrictive’ refugee policies

UN chief Ban Ki-moon hit out on Thursday at what he called "increasingly restrictive" refugee policies in Europe as the continent faces its worst migrant crisis in decades.

UN chief slams 'increasingly restrictive' refugee policies
Wikimedia/Remy Steinegger

“I am concerned that European countries are now adopting increasingly restrictive immigration and refugee policies,” Ban said in a speech to the Austrian parliament.

“Such policies negatively affect the obligation of member states under international humanitarian law and European law.”

His comments came a day after the Austrian parliament adopted one of Europe's toughest asylum laws, as the country's political leaders struggle to halt the surging far-right which is leading in presidential polls.

The hotly-disputed bill, which passed by 98 votes to 67, allows the government to declare a “state of emergency” if migrant numbers suddenly rise and reject most asylum seekers directly at the border, including those from war-torn countries like Syria.

If the mechanism is triggered, border authorities will only grant access to refugees facing safety threats in a neighbouring transit country or whose relatives are already in Austria.

Some groups including minors and pregnant women will be exempt from the rule.

The restrictions are similar to tough rules introduced by the right-wing government in neighbouring Hungary last year.

In addition, MPs also voted to restrict existing asylum laws by placing limits on the length of asylum granted to migrants and making it harder for their families to join them.

Opposition parties and rights groups slammed the legislation, with the UN's refugee agency warning that it “removes a centrepiece of refugee protection”.

But Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka insisted Austria had no other choice as long as “so many other European Union members fail to do their part” to stop the influx.

Wedged between Europe's two main refugee routes – the Balkans and Italy – Austria received around 90,000 asylum requests in 2015, the second-highest in the bloc on a per capita basis.

More than a million people, primarily from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, landed in Europe last year, triggering the continent's worst migration crisis since the aftermath of World War II.

To reduce the flow, the EU recently struck a controversial deal with Ankara, under which all irregular migrants reaching Greece after March 20 will be returned to Turkey.

Although the pact has led to a sharp drop in arrivals, the International Organisation for Migration last week warned that the numbers were starting to rise again.

The crisis has boosted populist fringe parties across Europe, pressuring traditionally centrist governments to adopt a much firmer stance on migrants.

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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