BAD STAFFELSTEIN, Germany (Reuters) - Austria has sent back more than 5,000 migrants to EU countries that they had crossed on their way to Austria, its interior minister said on Thursday.
Three weeks ago, Austria and Germany temporarily exempted people fleeing the Syrian war from EU rules requiring refugees to request asylum at the point where they enter the bloc. The move angered neighbors such as Hungary, who said it would merely encourage more migrants to come.
"If I remember rightly, we have sent more than 5,000 or 5,500 back from Austria, especially to Bulgaria and Romania among others," Johanna Mikl-Leitner told journalists at a meeting in Germany of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives.
"For a functioning asylum system, you need an effective return policy, and there's still a lot of work to do on this, especially with regard to north African countries," she said.
Mikl-Leitner noted that hardly any applications for asylum were made in safe countries such as Croatia or Slovenia, which meant that migrants who passed through them were no longer seeking safety but rather wanted to choose the country with the most attractive economic situation.
"If refugees come from Slovenia and Croatia to Austria and apply for asylum in Austria ... then we'll take them back to Croatia and Slovenia."
Mikl-Leitner made no mention of Hungary, Austria's eastern neighbor and fellow EU member whose treatment of refugees Austria's chancellor has likened to Nazi deportations during the Holocaust.
She said Austria had imprisoned 545 people smugglers, and that there were likely to be about 2,000 trials of traffickers this year, twice last year's level.
(Reporting by Michelle Martin and Joern Poltz; Editing by Kevin Liffey)