By NIKOLAJ NIELSEN
Austria is ready to “protect” its borders amid reported Italian threats to issue provisional visas to thousands of migrants.
Speaking to journalists in Brussels on Monday (17 July), Austria’s foreign minister Sebastian Kurz said the country would not allow large numbers of people to pass from Italy should Rome issue the documents.
“If it happens, we will protect the Brenner border. We will not allow that people can move to the north, we know what this triggered in 2015,” said Kurz. Some one million people arrived in the EU in 2015 with many passing north through the Western Balkans from Greece.
The statement follows Austrian plans announced earlier this month to send the army to reinforce police at the Brenner Pass, a major highway that runs through a mountainous valley.
Few people are leaving Italy towards Austria but Rome reportedly said it would provide travel visas to migrants stuck in the country given the lack of help from other EU states.
An Italian official said the government had never “formally issued” any proposal on the provisional visas, noting the idea had instead been floated by the parliament.
Kurz, a 30-year old vying to become the next chancellor, had also demanded that Italy restrict ferry crossings of migrants from its islands to the mainland in the hope it will help curtail movement towards the rest of Europe.
His comments comes ahead of Austrian legislative elections in October, with Kurz leading the centre-right Austrian People’s party.
Foreign ministers discuss Libya
It also follows a meeting among foreign ministers in Brussels, who are ratcheting up pressure against migrant smugglers in Libya.
A vast majority of people leaving from Libya are using dinghies, given in part, an EU led effort through its naval operation Sophia to seize and destroy the migrant boats.
Sophia’s mandate is soon set to terminate with some, like Belgium, wanting the operation to shift into Libyan territorial waters.
“This requires an invitation from the Libyan authorities, I would say that this would probably also require more assets,” said the EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini.
With fewer sea-worthy boats available, smugglers appear to have opted for more cheaper rubber alternatives.
Ministers now want to restrict exports on dinghies and outboard motors to Libya.
“The EU will consider how the restriction of access to the said products for smugglers and traffickers could be extended beyond the EU,” noted the ministers.
The move is part of a broader aim to close down the migratory route in the Central Mediterranean, prevent charities from rescuing people inside Libya territorial waters, and turn the country’s detention centres into reception facilities.
“There are about more than 30 of these detention centres, several thousand people, we are working in about 20 of them,” said Lacy Swing, the head of the Geneva-based International Organisation of Migration (IOM).
Some 86,000 people have taken the route from Libya to reach Italy, with over 2,200 dying in the process, since the start of this year.
But Libya remains gripped in violence and political instability. The UN recognised government in Tripoli has little influence and control over vast swathes of country given, in part, the presence of some 1,500 armed militia groups.
Amid the political instability, the EU is piling on the pressure to better control the southern Libyan borders and to offload the task of managing the migrants onto the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and the IOM.
Both charities are present in Libya with the IOM hoping to return at least 10,000 people to their home countries by the end of the year.
The EU, meanwhile, has trained some 113 Libyan coast guards to pluck people from the Libyan territorial waters and return them to Libya. Another 75 are set to be trained in September.
“The ultimate objective for us is not to have European Union presence in the Libyan territorial waters,” noted Mogherini.