By Francois Murphy and Alexandra Schwarz-Goerlich
VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria declared on Wednesday it would cap the number of people allowed to claim asylum this year at less than half last year's total, and its chancellor said border controls would have to be stepped up "massively"; but how that would be done was unclear.
Hundreds of thousands of people have streamed into this country of 8.5 million since September, when it and Germany threw open their borders to a wave of people fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
The vast majority of arrivals simply crossed the country on their way to Germany, but a fraction have stayed. Roughly 90,000 people, or more than 1 percent of Austria's population, applied for asylum last year.
Public fears about immigration have fueled support for the far right, and calls for a cap on the number of migrants by members of the center-right People's Party within the coalition government have grown.
"We cannot take in all asylum seekers in Austria, or in Germany or in Sweden," Werner Faymann, a Social Democrat who has resisted calls to cap immigration, told a joint news conference, referring to the countries that have taken in the most migrants.
The government plan announced on Wednesday provides for the number of asylum claims to be restricted to 1.5 percent of Austria's population, spread over the next four years.
Breaking down the four-year cap, the statement said the number of asylum claims would be limited to 37,500 this year, falling annually to 25,000 in 2019.
Asked what would happen if the number of people who wanted to apply for asylum exceeded that figure, Faymann said only that experts were due to examine the issue.
"We must also step up controls at our borders massively," Faymann told the joint news conference with Vice Chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner and other officials, without explaining what that would involve.
The Slovenian police said later on Wednesday that Slovenia planned "the same action" as Austria on its southern border with Croatia if Austria, which lies north of Slovenia, took further steps to limit the inflow of migrants.
The Dutch prime minister, whose government currently chairs EU ministerial councils, said Austria's move illustrated the kind of national action likely to multiply if the EU did not start implementing a commonly agreed strategy on asylum before a likely "spike" in arrivals with spring weather.
Saying the EU had six to eight weeks to end division and inaction on managing immigration, Mark Rutte told reporters at the European Parliament in Strasbourg that if that failed "we have to think about a plan B".
As Germany has tightened its border controls in recent months, Austria has often followed. Austria's interior minister said last week it would start turning away people who were no longer being let into Germany, prompting a knock-on effect further down the main route into Europe.
Faymann said he had discussed his government's plans in principle with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and their Slovenian counterpart.
Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert, however, declined to comment on the Austrian plan.
"The German government still favors a joint European solution that tackles the causes of migration in order to reduce the number of refugees significantly and noticeably," he said.
Faymann referred to the measures as a second-best option while awaiting a European solution involving securing the European Union's external borders, setting up centers there for people to apply for asylum, and spreading them around the bloc.
(Additional reporting by Matt Robinson in Belgrade, Marja Novak in Ljubljana and by the Brussels bureau; Editing by Toby Chopra and Mark John)