• publish: 3 November 2015
  • time: 8:37 pm
  • category: International
  • No: 2007

Austria drafts new law to deter Afghan refugees; UN criticises

Austria’s cabinet, facing record numbers of asylum requests this year, proposed a tough new bill on Tuesday to deter Afghans that the United Nations refugee agency criticised as likely to increase the refugees’ suffering.

The move follows the German interior minister’s call for Afghans, who make up a large proportion of the hundreds of thousands of refugees seeking refuge in Europe, to stay in their home country.

Austria’s new law would force most Afghans to wait for three years, rather than one year under current rules, to be able to bring family members to Austria. They would also have to have an independent source of income, health insurance and a flat.

Austria is the first west European country that hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Middle East and beyond reach on their trek westwards, and a major conduit for those moving on towards Germany and northern Europe.

“This is a political decision. Making family reunification rules stricter mainly affects Afghans,” Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner said to explain the bill.

“It is important for us to create clear rules here and, of course, to decrease (Austria’s) attractiveness.”

The Vienna office of the UN refugee agency UNHCR promptly criticised the new rules for family reunification, which it said would increase personal suffering and hinder successful integration. Many refugees are young adult men who hope to send for family members once they have found asylum in Europe.

“If legal ways (to migrate) are being shut off, people will use traffickers and take larger risks than was the case up to now in order to rejoin their family and live with them in safety,” said Christoph Pinter, head of UNHCR Austria.

The law, which is due to take force from mid-November even though parliament would not pass it until December, would apply to those granted “subsidiary protection” rather than those being granted full political asylum, such as most Syrians.

Meanwhile, an international aid organisation pledged on Tuesday to boost its aid for thousands of refugees streaming through Greece and said allowing them legal passage across the Aegean would help save lives and stop traffickers profiting from their misery.

At least 435 refugees drowned in the Aegean Sea in the first 10 months of this year, international data shows, out of more than 580,000 estimated to have crossed from Turkey to European Union member Greece, many of them fleeing Syria’s civil war.

On the Greek island of Lesbos, which receives the largest number of arrivals, the cemeteries and mortuary are now full and a local bishop said authorities were now using a special freezer car to store the dead bodies.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), which coordinates humanitarian groups around the world, promised to increase its aid to 12.7 million Swiss francs over the next seven months from 3 million offered in September.

In Athens, the IFRC Secretary General, Elhadj As Sy, called for a loosening of travel restrictions to allow the refugees to move legally, echoing a position long held by Greece.

“Because if you do it legally, you take away the illegal business from the traffickers and then the smugglers. And then people would feel safer and it would be better organised,” he said.

Rescue organisations report that smugglers take up to 1,400 euros per passenger for a short boat trip. If they were tourists the cost for a round trip from Turkey to Lesbos would be 25 euros.

Bishop Iakovos of Mytilene (Lesbos) said on Tuesday about 20 people were still unburied on the island due to a lack of space to accommodate them.

“A special freezer car has been brought and people are placed in there until they can be buried. Most of them are unidentified, and that includes children,” he told Mega TV.

Authorities are actively seeking a permanent burial site for the dead refugees, he said.

While members of the Greek Orthodox Christian faith are often exhumed three years after their death to be stored in an ossuary, that practice is not acceptable for Muslims, the bishop said. A majority of the refugees are Muslim.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ office said on Tuesday he had accepted an invitation to talks in Ankara with his Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu on the migrant crisis and other issues.

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