In May 2016 a total of 3,795 asylum applications were received in Austria, compared to the 6,408 received in the same month in 2015.
The drop is largely attributed to the closure of the so-called Balkan route into central Europe for migrants and asylum seekers and stricter controls at the borders with Hungary and Italy.
The figures from the Interior Ministry follow data released in June by the EU that showed the number of asylum applications in Austria in the first three months had dropped by 55% compared the last quarter of 2015.
Although Austria is seeing fewer asylum applications, it still has one of the highest number of applicants per population in Europe, second only to Germany, and many asylum seekers and migrants are still trying to make their way to Europe via Italy.
In the first five months of 2016, around 46,000 arrived in Italy on boats on the Mediterranean, with shipwrecks and capsizings killing at least 880 people.
Austria set an upper limit of 37,500 on the number of asylum applications it is prepared to accept in 2016.
So far the country has received 20,003 asylum applications this year, plus a further 6,300 applications from people who Austria wants to return to the first EU country they entered under the Dublin Regulation.
A new asylum law that allows the Austrian government to implement special measures on migration in ‘emergency’ situations was passed by the parliament a few months ago.
Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern (SPÖ) has previously said the government would introduce the measures – which would allow police to turn away nearly all asylum seekers at the border – when the upper limit on asylum seekers is reached.
Others have called the measures to be introduced sooner. “You must implement the emergency conditions before the upper limit of 37,500 is reached,” Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka from the conservative ÖVP party said this week.
Despite significantly lower numbers of asylum applications compared to the previous year, the Interior Ministry has been building reception centres and facilities in areas that saw large numbers of arrivals last summer.
A registration centre is being set up in Nickelsdorf, on the border between Austria and Hungary, and plans for fences in the municipalities of Moschendorf, Heiligenkreuz and Heiligenbrunn are also being put in place.
“We have learnt from the previous year and improved the processes in the background,” a spokesperson from the Burgenland provincial police told the Kurier.
Austria to discuss borders with Hungary
Defence Minister Hans Peter Doskozil (SPÖ) and Sobotka are due to travel to Hungary next week to try to finalise negotiations over border security at the border between Hungarian and Serbian.
Yesterday Sobotka summoned the Hungarian Ambassador to the Interior Ministry after Hungary started controlling people arriving to their country from Austria, in response to Austria's strengthening of traffic controls that caused two hour traffic delays in both countries.
The issue will be discussed at the meeting this week where Austria also hope to persuade Hungary to begin taking back asylum seekers under the Dublin Regulation.
Since the regulation broke down last summer, Hungary has argued they should not be expected to accept asylum seekers returned from central Europe.
“If Hungary takes back refugees, it will give us some breathing space,” said Doskozil.
EU meet to discuss migration
Meanwhile, EU policy makers are gathering in Slovakia today to discuss the implementation of plans to strengthen the policing of EU’s external borders.
They are also due to discuss recent proposals from the European Commission to change the EU’s migration policy, providing more financial support to northern African countries and improving access to visas for migrants.