Austria to tighten asylum rules

A group of migrants waits to cross the border from Slovenia into Austria (Reuters)
A group of migrants waits to cross the border from Slovenia into Austria (Reuters)

Austria has sought to tighten asylum rules in the face of a record influx of migrants, hours before the first refugees are set to be relocated from Greece under a faltering EU plan to ease the burden on southern countries.

Facing a record influx of migrants and a surge in support for the anti-immigration far-right, Austrian lawmakers have put forward a bill that will mean anyone granted asylum will be reassessed after three years and sent back if their country of origin is deemed safe.

Those under "subsidiary protection" – a kind of asylum-lite status awarded in particular to Afghans – will meanwhile only be allowed to be joined by family members after three years, one year more than currently.

Chancellor Werner Faymann says the controversial legislation, due to go before parliament in December, is a "signal that asylum is something which is temporary" and is aimed at deterring people from coming to Austria.

Rights groups sharply criticised the proposals, saying they will make the integration of migrants into Austrian society more difficult, while the UN refugee agency said tightening rules on relatives "could keep families apart for many years, if not for ever".

About 400,000 migrants have entered Austria since September, making it one of the highest recipients of new arrivals in the European Union on a per-capita basis amid the largest movement of people in the region since World War II.

While most migrants are heading to Germany or Scandinavia, front line states on the bloc's south and eastern borders have struggled to cope with the thousands of people streaming across their borders from land and sea.

In a bid to ease their burden, the EU on Wednesday (local time) will start relocating refugees from Greece to other member states in a ceremony that will be attended by the EU's commissioner for immigration and European Parliament president Martin Schulz.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras will meet a first group of 30 refugees at Athens airport before they voluntarily board a plane for Luxembourg, Athens said in a statement.

Laboriously devised and, in some quarters, fiercely contested, the EU plan calls for sharing out nearly 160,000 migrants among EU countries after they are processed at so-called "hotspots" in Italy and Greece.

Many have died trying to make the dangerous journey to Europe by sea, and on Tuesday four people including two children drowned when their boat ran into trouble off the Greek island of Lesbos, Greek harbour police said.

In Brussels, EU President Donald Tusk has urged Turkey, which plays a linchpin role in the crisis as it hosts more than two million Syrians, to show its readiness to work with Brussels.

But Erdogan and other officials have since dampened expectations, in a further sign of the troubled relationship between Ankara and Brussels hindering international cooperation over the migrant crisis.