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IMMIGRATION

UN says Austria risks breaking ‘taboo’ on refugees

The UN refugee agency has warned that Austria is in danger of breaking a decades-old tradition of helping those in need, after Vienna moved a step closer to potentially shutting its borders to migrants.

UN says Austria risks breaking 'taboo' on refugees
Syrian refugees crossing the Austrian border last year. Photo: UNHCR/M. Henley

“Since World War II, Austria has always adhered to the tradition of protecting refugees. Access to the asylum process has always been a matter of course,” said Christoph Pinter, head of UNHCR in Austria.

But the new plans “would represent the breaking of a taboo and a retreat from the protection of refugees,” Pinter said in a statement.

On Tuesday, the governing coalition agreed on a draft emergency decree that, once it enters into force, would allow Austria to block the entry of migrants directly at its borders.

Chancellor Christian Kern said that the decree would be applied once the government's upper limit of 37,500 asylum applications for this year is reached.

The draft decree remains at least several weeks from being ready to come into force and could face legal challenges, including at EU level. How the border closures would work in practice also remain unclear.

Austria received a record 90,000 asylum applications in 2015, when hundreds of thousands of migrants, many fleeing conflict in the Middle East, entered Europe.

Austria's far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), echoing populist parties elsewhere, has stoked concerns about the new arrivals to boost support, putting Kern under pressure to act.

On October 2, the FPÖ's Norbert Hofer stands a good chance of being elected as Europe's first far-right president since 1945, although in Austria the job is largely ceremonial.

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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