Austria to take tougher action to turn away economic migrants

Migrants stand in queue during snowfall before passing Austrian-German border in Wegscheid in Austria, near Passau November 22, 2015. REUTERS/Michael Dalder/Files (Reuters)

By Shadia Nasralla VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria will take tougher action to turn away economic migrants in order to reduce overall immigration as it sees little help from other European countries in stemming the flow of migrants arriving at its border, ministers said on Tuesday. Hundreds of thousands of people fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East, Afghanistan and elsewhere have entered Austria, many en route to Germany, in the past year. Around 90,000 of those sought asylum in Austria - a country of 8.5 million people - in 2015, around three times more than the previous year, Interior Ministry statistics show. No figures are given for economic migrants. Vice-Chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner, from the conservative junior coalition party, said Austria was under pressure to act on a national level in the absence of help from EU neighbors. "I see nothing on the European level that points in the direction of taking actions," Mitterlehner told reporters, pointing to slow progress in setting up so-called hotspots on Europe's outer borders to speed up asylum processes. Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner said so-called Dublin rules had to be applied more firmly again, which would allow sending migrants back to the EU state they first arrived in. She also described as economic migrants those who fled from war, but traveled through several EU countries to settle in one they considered more affluent, such as Sweden or Germany, which is currently sending hundreds of migrants back to Austria. Chancellor Werner Faymann echoed her comments on the need to reduce the number of arrivals, calling for a Plan B. "That means to intensify policies together with Germany to send back economic migrants and decrease overall numbers," Social Democrat Faymann said in an interview with Austrian newspaper Krone published on Tuesday. GERMAN MOVES He said Austria needed to explore differentiating between those fleeing war and those who migrate for economic reasons. "We will be more active at our borders than today. The Germans will also do more," Faymann said, but declined to list specific measures in a news conference later on Tuesday. Previously more lenient on accepting migrants, Faymann has come under pressure from his conservative coalition partners and the far-right Freedom Party, which is supported by around a third of people surveyed in opinion polls. Last month, he said Austria should step up deportations of people who do not qualify for asylum. Austrian police said on Monday Germany was refusing more and more migrants entry at its southern border, sending a few hundred back to Austria every day since the start of January. The German Interior Ministry said on Tuesday the refugees and asylum seekers concerned had already said at the border crossing that they did not want to seek protection in Germany but rather elsewhere. Such people have been rejected at the border since border controls were introduced, the ministry said. "Germany has clearly in part said goodbye to its 'welcoming culture'," Mikl-Leitner told reporters in Vienna on Tuesday. Bavarian Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann on Tuesday welcomed the police sending greater numbers of people back across the border in recent days, saying this was "sensible" and he hoped it would continue. He said he believed Austria was in contact with Slovenia and Croatia about how people could be sent back there. Attacks on women in several German cities on New Year's Eve have prompted hundreds of complaints, with police suspicion resting on asylum seekers, putting pressure on Chancellor Angela Merkel and her open-door migrant policy. (Reporting by Shadia Nasralla; Additional reporting by Michelle Martin in Berlin and Irene Preisinger in Munich; Editing by Alison Williams)