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Another refugee crisis in Europe brews as Austria mulls Italian border closing

The Italian government has summoned Austria's ambassador after the government in Vienna announced it was ready to re-introduce border controls, suspend the EU's Schengen system and deploy troops at the border.

Published: July 5, 2017, 9:30 am

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    Italy had warned that the current flood of migrant arrivals was unsustainable and that it could close its ports and impound aid agencies’ rescue ships, but the Italians are furious with an Austrian decision to deploy troops and armored vehicles along the border to block migrants wanting to leave Italy.

    Austrian Defence Minister Hans Peter Doskozil told Austrian daily, Kronen Zeitung that troops would guard a busy Alpine pass and that four Pandur armoured personnel carriers had been sent to the Tyrol region with 750 troops on standby.

    “We need to prepare for the migration development in Italy, and I expect very promptly that border controls will have to be activated and assistance requested,” Hans Peter Doskozil told the online edition of the Krone daily.

    Doskozil said that a military presence at the Brenner Pass would be “indispensable if the influx into Italy [across the Mediterranean] does not diminish”. The Brenner pass is one of the main mountain thoroughfares in the eastern Alps.

    “We see how the situation in Italy is becoming more acute and we have to be prepared to avoid a situation comparable to summer 2015,” Doskozil’s spokesman told Reuters, without giving a specific timetable for the troop deployment.

    The Austrian Defence minister however explained that “these are not battle tanks. These are armored vehicles without weapons which could block roads. These were already used during the refugee crisis 201/16 at the Spielfeld border crossing [with Slovenia].”

    Italy’s foreign ministry said in response it had summoned Austrian Ambassador Rene Pollitzer “following the Austrian government’s statement about deploying troops to the Brenner (pass)”.

    While Austria has set up border control with Hungary and Slovenia, it has previously adhered to the EU’s Schengen system with neighbouring Italy. The Schengen Agreement enables border-free travel in much of the EU.

    Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz told the Austria Press Agency that his government was prepared to “protect” the frontier with Italy “if necessary”.

    The Italian governor of South Tyrol, Arno Kompatscher, tried to defuse mounting tensions between Italy and Austria. According to the BBC, he said similar warnings on border control had been issued previously, while the situation there had remained “quiet and stable”. Kompatscher also noted that the anti-immigration Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) was expected to poll strongly which would explain the move blocking te border.

    Almost 85 000 migrants and refugees have already arrived in Italy in the first half of this year, crossing the Mediterranean with the help of human smugglers. The UN refugee agency UNHCR says that is about 20 percent more than in the first half of 2016.

    Vincent Cochetel, the UNHCR’S special envoy for the central Mediterranean, criticised the Austrian decision saying “this is not sustainable. We need to have other countries joining Italy and sharing that responsibility”. But very few countries in the EU want to “share the responsibility” of Germany’s generous refugee acceptance program.

    Ironically, the latest report by the same UNHCR, revealed more troubling figures: Few “refugees” will ever be granted asylum, as at least 70 percent of those arriving in Italy are economic migrants. Most migrants and refugees are young, single and male with little or no education from countries not currently engaged in conflict.

    In 2015, an influx of migrants and refugees coming through Central Europe via the Balkans, headed for Germany, sparking a crisis. Since then, tighter border controls in the Balkans have reduced the numbers heading north from Greece. Most of the influx to Austria was via Hungary.

    So far 101 000 migrants have entered Europe in 2017 via the Mediterranean.

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