29 April 2016

On Wednesday 27 April, only a few weeks after the proposed amendments to the Asylum Act were tabled, the Austrian Parliament approved them with a 98 to 67 majority. Under the new law, the government can declare a state of emergency in the case of a mass refugee influx, which could be a threat to national security. Though it is not specified what would constitute an influx big enough to trigger the application of the law, the state of emergency would lead to an effective closure of the border and a denial of access to the asylum procedure.

Applications made at the border would be subject to a fast-track admissibility procedure, based on the “safe third country” concept: any person unable to prove that he or she would be in danger or face degrading treatment in a neighbouring country would be returned to that country. Those who manage to enter Austrian territory to claim asylum, would be sent back to the border to undergo the same procedure in registration centres located there. Any decision to expel someone from the country would be based entirely on admissibility concerns and would not take into account the merits of the claim, meaning that in practice, people who could qualify for international protection, would not be allowed into Austrian territory.

Exceptions allowing access to the territory are provided for women with small children, unaccompanied minors and vulnerable groups. The right to appeal against return is provided for, but only after the return has taken place, thus making it difficult to understand how it would be possible to appeal a return decision while not on Austrian territory.

The new law also allows for increased time limits an applicant can spend in detention pending return, now up to14 days from the previous 5. The duration of refugee status itself has been reduced to three years, and the waiting period for family reunification has been increased to three years.

This law effectively turns the Austrian asylum system into one of the toughest in Europe, and means it derogates from international and EU law. Christoph Pinter, head of the UN refugee agency in Austria, said: “In the last 60 years, Austria has built up a solid asylum system and even in times of crisis has always upheld the tradition of refugee protection. Should the scheduled amendments be adopted in the current form, it would cause a renunciation of this decades-long established practice with massive consequences for refugee protection.”

The law is expected to pass quickly and unchallenged in the second parliamentary chamber and will come into force in June this year.

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This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin of 29 April 2016. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.