SPIELFELD, AUSTRIA/VIENNA – Austria will introduce quotas to limit the flow of migrants onto its territory and is preparing crowd-control measures at up to a dozen additional crossings in case a bottleneck prompts a shift in peoples’ movements, it said on Tuesday.
Countries between Austria and Greece on the migrants’ main route into Europe, through the Balkans and toward Germany, were also progressively tightening their border restrictions, creating a “domino effect,” government officials said.
“We have reached our capacity in various areas and must apply the brakes step by step,” Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner told a news conference at the country’s busiest crossing, at Spielfeld, on the border with Slovenia.
“There will be a daily quota and an hourly quota and, as soon as these are reached, we will stop (letting people through),” she said, adding that Germany has used a similar system on its border with Austria for months.
That system has caused backlogs and delays in Austria.
A similar outcome was to be expected in Slovenia, Mikl-Leitner said, adding that preparations would be made at a dozen additional border crossings, including the vital Brenner connection with Italy, for greater restrictions if necessary.
She declined to say how large the quotas would be.
Austria has mainly been a corridor into Germany for the hundreds of thousands of people, many of them Syrian refugees, who have reached its territory since the two countries threw open their borders to them in September.
Austria and Germany have taken in a similar number of asylum seekers in proportion to their populations, a much larger share than most in Europe but still a far smaller burden than Syria’s neighbors Lebanon and Jordan.
With concerns about the influx fueling support for the far right in Austria, the country’s coalition government has grown increasingly impatient with the slow progress of European measures aimed at addressing the continent’s migration crisis.
“My impression is that a European solution will not be possible at least in the short term and possibly also in the medium term,” Defense Minister Hans Peter Doskozil told the joint news conference with Mikl-Leitner in Spielfeld.
“We must act now,” he added.
Mikl-Leitner said preparations would be made at a dozen crossings in addition to Spielfeld for measures to manage larger numbers of arrivals if necessary. Those could include a fence like the 4-km (2.5-mile) one there, she added.
The Brenner crossing with Italy is one of those 12, Mikl-Leitner said, adding that efforts would be made to limit any effect on traffic. The highway there is one of the busiest commercial thoroughfares between Italy and Northern Europe.
Austria has already said it will halve asylum applications from 2015, and last week Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz told Macedonia to be ready to “completely stop” the flow of migrants across its southern border, adding that Austria would soon do the same.
The Austrian government announced Tuesday it would step up border controls at checkpoints along its southern frontier with Italy, Slovenia and Hungary in a bid to slow the migrant influx.
“There will be different structural measures from containers to further barriers” similar to the short mesh fence recently set up at Austria’s main border crossing with Slovenia at Spielfeld, Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner said.
The announcement deals a new blow to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who wants to promote a deal with Turkey at an upcoming EU summit to tackle to the continent’s worst migration crisis since World War II.
But Austria, which initially supported Merkel’s call for a European solution, has adopted an increasingly hard-line stance after receiving 90,000 asylum claims last year — one of the bloc’s highest rates per capita.
“We are preparing Plan B not because we want it, but because the implementation of a European solution is too slow,” Austrian Chancellor Werner Merkel told the Oesterreich newspaper Tuesday.
Vienna has also joined the “Visegrad Four” group — Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic — in their push to close the Balkans refugee route by shutting off Greece, which they accuse of failing to protect the EU’s external borders.
Merkel on Tuesday strongly criticized the proposal: “Do we really want to give up already and close the Greek-Macedonian-Bulgarian border, with all the consequences this would have for Greece and the European Union as a whole and therefore the Schengen area?”
Austrian controls will be increased at checkpoints in the states of Carinthia, Styria, Burgenland as well as Tyrol, which shares a border with Italy.
“The aim is to secure the order and stability of our country. That’s why we put the brakes on,” Mikl-Leitner stressed.
The government also plans to create on Wednesday a daily cap on the number of migrants allowed into the country at Spielfeld, she added.
As a result of the cap, the Austrian government expects the migrant flow along the Balkan route to possibly be diverted from Slovenia to Italy.
“We need to prepare for that,” the interior minister said.
Vienna already warned last month it would cap this year’s number of asylum claims at 37,500 and deport at least 12,500 people.
The government has, however, not yet specified what it plans to do once the limit has been reached.
Tuesday’s announcement came hours after Greece — the migrants’ entry point into the EU after they arrive from Turkey — announced that four of its five long-delayed migrant registration centers were “ready to function and welcome refugees.”
Athens is under heavy pressure from fellow EU members to control its borders better, with the bloc imposing a three-month ultimatum last week to remedy “deficiencies” or face effective suspension from the Schengen passport-free zone.
But just two days ahead of an EU leaders’ summit in Brussels, Defense Minister Panos Kammenos said: “The game of pushing responsibility onto Greece is now over.”
In 2015, over a million people reached Europe’s shores — nearly half of them Syrians fleeing a civil war that has killed more than a quarter of a million people.
From Turkey, many undertake a dangerous sea crossing to Greece, from where they brave a grueling journey along the Balkans in the hope of reaching Germany or Sweden.
With the crisis showing no sign of abating, Merkel advocates a plan under which transit country Turkey would seal its borders and then fly refugees to Europe, where they would be settled under an EU quota system.
At the EU summit starting Thursday, she said, “I will focus all my strength… on making the European-Turkish approach the path that will be taken.”