Austria to seize refugees’ mobiles and demand cash

Asylum seekers will be forced to hand over their mobile phones and up to 840 euros ($1,040) in cash to the authorities, under measures approved by the Austrian cabinet on Wednesday.

Austria to seize refugees' mobiles and demand cash
FPÖ chairman Heinz-Christian Strache (R) and then secretary Herbert Kickl unveil the party's posters reading "Islamification should be stopped" ahead of last year's election. Photo: AFP

The money will be put towards the costs of their applications, while authorities will examine whether geo-location data from refugees' phones match  their accounts of how they arrived in the country.

If the applicant is found to have previously entered another European  country where the so-called “Dublin regulation” is in force, they could be  sent back there. 

Interior Minister Herbert Kickl, from the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ)  said his aim was a “restrictive and enforceable law regarding the rights of  foreigners” in order to end “abuse” of the asylum system.

The measures are due to be voted through by parliament in the next few  weeks.

In last year's parliamentary election, a crackdown on immigration was one  of the FPOe's key themes and was also adopted by Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and  his centre-right Austrian People's Party (ÖVP).

Austria received more than 150,000 asylum applications — almost 2 percent  of its total population of 8.7 million — following the migration crisis of  2015.

'Intrusion into privacy'

The measures announced on Wednesday also mean that refugees will only be able to apply for Austrian citizenship after ten years, as opposed to six  previously.

Deportations of asylum applicants convicted of crimes will also be speeded  up.

Human rights pressure group SOS Mitmensch denounced the measures.

“When the last bit of cash is taken away from men, woman and children, who  already have very little, it's debilitating for those concerned,” the group  said, adding that the measures would make integration more difficult.

The seizure of mobile phone data would be a “serious intrusion into  people's privacy”, it said, while the plan to make applying for citizenship harder was “political posturing” to conceal the fact that the process is  already very difficult.

Last week Kickl said he would push EU colleagues to end the possibility of asylum applications being made in Europe. He wants a system where people can  only apply for asylum in so-called “transit zones”, outside the EU's borders.

He previously caused controversy earlier this year by saying he wanted to  “concentrate” asylum-seekers in certain places, employing a word widely associated with Nazi camps.

READ ALSO: Austria's far-right interior minister provokes outrage with call to 'concentrate' migrants


‘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.