VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria's conservative Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka said on Thursday tough new immigration rules should be activated as soon as possible, in a week that saw immigration policy trigger the ruling coalition's first rift under a new chancellor.
Sobotka's People's Party and the far right reacted angrily to remarks on Tuesday by the new chancellor, Social Democrat Christian Kern, about a cap on asylum claims that the government announced in January.
Austria began clamping down on immigration this year after it threw open its borders last autumn to migrants fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and elsewhere. It took in 90,000 asylum seekers last year, more than 1 percent of its population.
The cap limits the number of people allowed to apply for asylum at 37,500 this year. On Tuesday Kern put the number of claims so far at 11,000, roughly half the number previously reported. He did not clarify the reason for the discrepancy.
Sobotka responded on Wednesday by saying Austria's immigration policy was non-negotiable, and then called a news conference on Thursday at which he said Austria should implement a set of temporary asylum measures approved by lawmakers in April if it wanted to meet the cap.
"It should be possible in early September, or before the summer would be even better as far as I am concerned," Sobotka told the news conference.
The tougher laws would see potential asylum claims assessed and unsuccessful applicants turned away at the border within an hour. The rules would stay in place for six-month periods but can only be activated if the government demonstrates a threat to public order and interior security.
Sobotka said Austria was already half way towards the ceiling for 2016, he said, putting the number of claims at 18,950.
"It (the cap) will be reached in the autumn if we do not take counter-measures," he said, adding that the rate of arrivals was expected to accelerate in the coming months.
The head of the People's Party in Vienna said on Wednesday that if Kern was trying to soften the cap on asylum claims, he should no longer be chancellor.
The centrist coalition must continue until 2018 or face a snap parliamentary election the anti-immigration Freedom Party would likely win.
(Reporting by Francois Murphy, Shadia Nasralla and Kirsti Knolle; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)