The Latest: Austria calls for EU asylum reform

AP News
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Posted: Jan 20, 2016 2:20 PM
The Latest: Austria calls for EU asylum reform

VIENNA (AP) — The latest news on the influx of asylum-seekers and other migrants in Europe. All times local:

8:20 p.m.

Austrian President Heinz Fischer is calling for a "more fair and balanced" asylum policy in Europe, as the number of migrants to Austria nearly quadrupled last year.

Fischer spoke in Tunis alongside Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi on Wednesday.

He said proposals for reforming asylum policy would be debated in the country's parliament before being proposed to the European Union. "The goal is to achieve a more fair and better balanced asylum policy in Europe," Fischer said.

Austria earlier Wednesday announced it is putting a cap on the number of refugees it wants to accept — 37,500 this year and a total of 127,500 through 2019. Officials said the government will be examining legal options on how it can react if those numbers are exceeded.

Last year the country received 90,000 requests for asylum, up from 25,000 a year earlier, Fischer said. He added that any reforms would still conform to international conventions on human rights.

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5:55 p.m.

Officials from Serbia and Croatia say that only refugees who wish to seek asylum in Austria or Germany will be allowed to enter the two countries and continue their journey toward Western Europe.

The officials said Wednesday that the new rule follows the Austrian government's decision to do the same. Serbian Labor and Social Care Minister Aleksandar Vulin said Austria's decision has been relayed by the governments of Slovenia and Croatia.

In Zagreb, Croatia's Interior Minister Ranko Ostojic said authorities there will request migrants seeking entry to state which European Union country will be their final destination.

Austria said Wednesday it has put a cap on the number of refugees it wants to accept — 37,500 this year and a total of 127,500 through 2019.

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5:35 p.m.

Hundreds of refugees are stranded at Greece's northern border with Macedonia, after Macedonian authorities stopped letting them through citing problems with transit flows further north on the Balkan route which have caused a chain reaction.

Greek police say about 650 asylum-seekers from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan were stuck in a border camp Wednesday. People from those countries are recognized as refugees by Balkan countries and normally allowed through on their way to Germany and other wealthy European Union members.

Several have been waiting since the Macedonian border closed to migrants late Tuesday.

Macedonian authorities said the problem appears to be temporary, and started in Slovenia due to a disruption in the railway service that migrants use to reach Austria. As a result, they said, Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia stopped letting in migrants.

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5:25 p.m.

Authorities say the number of people deported from Germany last year almost doubled to 20,888 compared with 10,884 in 2014.

A further 37,220 people, mostly from western Balkan nations, took advantage of a financial assistance program and left voluntarily in 2015. The previous year the number of voluntary departures was about 20,000.

Germany has stepped up deportations in a bid to reduce the overall number of migrants in the country amid an unprecedented influx of almost 1.1 million asylum-seekers last year.

Bavaria, the state in which most asylum-seekers first set foot, deported 4,195 people last year, a fourfold increase on 2014.

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5:15 p.m.

An international rights organization has called on Bulgaria's government to stop forcefully returning asylum-seekers from its borders before they have the chance to apply for refugee status.

Human Rights Watch said Wednesday that Bulgaria has been summarily pushing back Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis as they cross the border from Turkey.

It says its activists have interviewed 45 asylum seekers in six countries who described 59 incidents of summary returns from Bulgaria to Turkey between March and November 2015. Twenty-six people said they had been beaten by police or bitten by police dogs. All but one said they were stripped of their possessions, in some cases at gunpoint by people they described as Bulgarian law enforcement officials, and later pushed back across the border to Turkey.

Bulgaria's interior ministry officials refused to immediately comment on the report.

Last year, over 30,000 migrants entered Bulgaria illegally, almost three times more than in 2014. To prevent a further massive influx, the government deployed more police officers at the Turkish border and built a fence along a 33-kilometer (20-mile) stretch.

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5:05 p.m.

Turkey's state-run news agency says authorities in northwestern Turkey have rounded up some 1,300 migrants who were allegedly preparing to make their way to Greece.

Anadolu Agency said Wednesday the migrants from Syria and Afghanistan were picked up in a new sweep in the resort of Ayvacik, in Canakkale province, which is a main crossing point to the Greek island of Lesbos.

Authorities also detained 17 suspected human traffickers during the raids, Anadolu said.

The agency did not say when the operations occurred.

Turkey — a major transit point for migrants on their way to Europe and home to 2.2 million refugees from Syria — is under intense pressure to stem the flow of migrants to Europe.

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3:20 p.m.

The German government wants the number of migrants coming to the country to fall "significantly" after almost 1.1 million asylum seekers arrived last year.

A spokesman for Chancellor Angela Merkel says the flow of refugees has already slowed this year, but a further reduction is needed.

Steffen Seibert didn't say what number the government is aiming for and declined to comment on the cap announced Wednesday by Austria.

Seibert told reporters in Berlin that a range of measures are needed to achieve the drop in migrant arrivals and urged European countries to make good on their pledge of giving 3 billion euros ($3.3 billion) to Turkey.

He said the experience of wars in ex-Yugoslavia in the 1990s showed many refugees would also return to their home countries once conflicts end.

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2:55 p.m.

Fifteen people have been arrested in Germany and Turkey as part of coordinated raids against people traffickers.

German Federal Police say officers, including special tactical units, searched 16 premises in Germany Wednesday, arresting five people.

Police in Turkey arrested 10 people during simultaneous raids.

Turkey is the main transit country for migrants from the Middle East, Asia and Africa trying to reach Europe.

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2:25 p.m.

Austria has put a cap on the number of refugees it wants to accept — 37,500 this year and a total of 127,500 through 2019.

The numbers were announced after a meeting Wednesday of federal ministers and provincial governors.

Chancellor Werner Faymann says the figures are a "guideline" while Deputy Chancellor Reinhard Mitterlehner calls it an "upper limit." The two officials are from the two parties that make up Austria's coalition government — Faymann heads the Social Democratic Party while Mitterlehner belongs to the centrist People's Party.

Officials said the government will be examining legal options on how it can react if those numbers are exceeded.

Faymann calls the decision an "emergency solution," but says Austria "cannot accept everyone applying for asylum."

Not included are the 90,000 applications from last year, of which many are still being processed.

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2:15 p.m.

Britain's government has ordered an investigation into alleged discrimination against asylum-seekers amid reports that many of the homes being provided for them have red front doors that mark them out for racial abuse.

Immigration Minister James Brokenshire says the Home Office will launch an inquiry after an investigation by the Times newspaper found that most public housing for asylum-seekers from Syria and eastern Europe in the northeastern English town of Middlesborough had red front doors. The report quotes asylum-seekers as complaining that the distinctive paint singles them out as easy targets for vandalism.

The services firm G4S, the contractor providing housing for asylum-seekers in the region, denies it has a discriminatory policy but said Wednesday it will repaint the doors so "there is no predominant color."

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1:30 p.m.

The head of the European Commission is calling for EU leaders to make enough time to center on the refugee crisis during the next EU summit in February which was primarily to focus on British demands to reform the bloc.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told reporters on Wednesday that half a day was needed for the 28 leaders to assess the latest developments in the refugee crisis.

Juncker said he was "rather worried that we won't have enough time to tackle the refugee question in sufficient depth."

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12:30 p.m.

Subfreezing temperatures and snow have settled in over Central Europe, adding to the difficulties of migrants making heading to Western Europe but not deterring them from continuing their journeys.

Liene Veide, a spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency, says around 2,000 migrants continue to cross from Macedonia into Serbia daily, even with temperatures plunging to a low of -19 (-2 F) Wednesday.

She said many arrive without clothing or boots appropriate for the winter weather, and that some have pneumonia, fever or other illnesses. Still, she says most refuse hospitalization and insist on pressing on with their journeys.

Meanwhile, temperatures plunged overnight Wednesday in Romania to the lowest of the year, with -29.5 C (-21 F) recorded in one town in central Romania.

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8:50 a.m.

Before a refugee summit of national and regional government leaders, a senior minister says Austria wants to reduce the number of migrants entering the country to no more than 40,000 a year.

Deputy Chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner is cited in Wednesday's Kurier newspaper as saying that his conservative party advocates a figure of 30,000 over four years. The daily says Mitterlehner's Social Democratic coalition partners favor 40,000 over three years.

Mitterlehner acknowledges that such restrictions still must be "legally clarified," in efforts to find a way that a person's right to asylum is not violated.

Close to 90,000 refugees applied for asylum last year in Austria.