Skip to main content

(Milan) – The law approved today by the National Council of the Austrian parliament is a blow to the rights of asylum seekers, Human Rights Watch said today. The law, which is expected to pass quickly and unchallenged in the parliament’s upper chamber, allows the federal government to declare a state of emergency and drastically curtail the right to seek asylum at Austria’s borders.

“These measures constitute a legal wall to asylum just as despicable as a razor-wire fence,” said Judith Sunderland, acting deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Austria should be working with other European Union countries to make sure people have a fair chance to get the protection they need, not taking unilateral decisions to pass asylum seekers around like hot potatoes.”

"Refugees welcome" is written on a wall made of carton boxes during a protest for a better asylum law in front of the Parliament in Vienna, Austria on April 25, 2016.  © 2016 Reuters

The law will allow the government, with the approval of the Main Committee in parliament, to declare “special measures for the maintenance of public order and the safeguarding of internal security” in the event of significant arrivals of migrants and asylum seekers at Austria’s borders. The law, however, fails to define exactly what could trigger and justify the imposition of these special measures.

The key feature of the package of special measures is a fast-track admissibility procedure for asylum seekers at Austrian land borders. Austrian police officers will examine applications solely for the purposes of determining whether individuals can be returned to the neighboring country from which they came. Only people who argue successfully that their lives would be in danger or that they face a real risk of torture or inhuman or degrading treatment in a neighboring country, or who have a nuclear family member already in Austria, will be allowed to formally apply for asylum. Appeals against returns will only be possible after the return has taken place. The law increases the amount of time people can be detained pending return from five to 14 days.

The government and parliament moved forward with these plans despite strong criticism from the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR and nongovernmental organizations. Nils Muiznieks, the Council of Europe commissioner for human rights, called the measures “highly problematic,” and had urged Austria not to move away from its obligations under international and EU law.

This harsh border regime will effectively block access for most asylum seekers to a fair and efficient procedure in Austria, and deny them the right to an effective remedy, Human Rights Watch said. Insofar as the measures are geared towards declaring almost all applications inadmissible and detaining almost every asylum seeker pending their forced return to a neighboring country, the law risks instituting blanket, automatic detention without due attention to particularly vulnerable asylum seekers.

The law is grounded in the flawed premise of the Dublin Regulation – that all EU countries share common asylum standards and procedures – but seeks to bypass the minimal procedural guarantees that must accompany the return of an asylum seeker to the first EU country of arrival (a general rule under the regulation). All of Austria’s neighbors are bound by the Dublin Regulation, including Switzerland, even though it is not an EU member state.

The law marks a further hardening of Austria’s asylum policies. In mid-February, Austria instituted a daily cap of 80 asylum applications at its borders, a move European Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos called “plainly incompatible” with EU law. Since January, Austria has periodically introduced border controls in what would normally be the Schengen free movement area, citing concerns about the influx of migrants and asylum seekers. On Monday, April 25, it re-imposed checks on its border with Hungary and is currently building physical barriers to enable more border control at the Brenner Pass, on its border with Italy, amid predictions of an increase in boat migration across the central Mediterranean from North Africa to Italy in the coming months.

Austria is one of a handful of countries that have not made any places available for the implementation of an EU plan decided in September 2015 to relocate 106,000 Syrian, Iraqi, and Eritrean asylum seekers from Italy and Greece. Austria has resettled 1,395 refugees from Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq since it agreed in July 2015 to an EU resettlement scheme obligating it to resettle 1,900 refugees from other regions of the world.

Austria received almost 90,000 new asylum applications in 2015, a threefold increase over the previous year. Migration and refugee issues have featured prominently in the presidential election campaign, in which Norbert Hofer, the candidate for the far-right Freedom Party, won the most votes in the first round of voting on April 24. The run-off vote will be held in late May.

 “Rolling back refugee rights is bad politics and even worse policy,” Sunderland said. “The Austrian government should live up to its responsibilities instead of hiding behind closed borders and abusive laws.”

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country