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Austrian troops. The Alpine country said it would deploy 70 soldiers to the border to Italy / Photo: NCD

Austria deploys soldiers to stop migrants coming from Italy

Austria is sending soldiers to stop migrants coming from Italy, while Bulgaria has said the EU should “defend” its borders by “force of arms”.

Austria announced on Thursday (17 August) it would deploy 70 soldiers, but no armoured vehicles yet, at the Brenner Pass to Italy.

It said between 700 and 1,000 migrants were entering the country from Italy each month, many of them on freight trains.

“It’s important not only to prevent illegal migration but, above all, to save human lives,” Helmut Tomac, an Austrian police chief, said on Wednesday, citing the fact that two migrants were found dead on a goods train last year.

Austria, Denmark, Germany, Norway, and Sweden have the European Commission’s blessing to impose temporary border checks despite being part of Schengen, the passport-free travel zone in Europe.

The military deployment is part of a wider EU migrant crackdown, including on its external borders.

Bulgaria said on Thursday that it would send 600 soldiers to stop people crossing from Turkey.

Krassimir Karakachanov, its defence minister, told Die Welt, a German newspaper, that this would include “highly specialised combat groups”.

“We cannot allow illegal migrants to come to Europe in large numbers,” he said, adding: “We should deploy Nato or EU forces in Italy and Greece and defend the external borders of the European Union by force of arms”.

Migrants living in appalling conditions in Bulgaria. The eastern European country has repeatedly said that it does not want to host migrants and said on Thursday that it would send 600 soldiers to stop people crossing from Turkey / Photo: UNHCR / D. Kashavelov

 

Italy and Greece are still the main route for asylum seekers and economic migrants trying to enter the EU.

Almost 96,500 people have come to Italy by crossing the central Mediterranean from 1 January until 6 August, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), an international body based in Geneva.

Some 11,700 have come to Greece via the eastern Mediterranean and 8,200 had come to Spain.

The Greek route had been the main one last year, with 161,000 people.

But this was all-but closed off via an EU deal with Turkey to stop people from sailing to Greek islands, creating extra pressure on Italy and Spain.

Italy saw 100,000 arrivals in the January to August period last year. The 2017 figure would have been higher, but a deal with Libya to stop migrants in Libyan waters and to chase away NGO rescue boats led to a recent drop-off in numbers.

The Spanish figure for this year is already three times higher than for last year.

Romania has also recorded a five-fold increase in irregular crossings compared to last year.

It caught more than 1,400 people trying to sneak into the country in the first half of this year, including a boat carrying 69 Iraqi migrants in the Black Sea last weekend.

The Austrian military action has highlighted the lack of solidarity on immigration in the EU.

Local authorities in north-west Italy said the military deployment was “surprising and unjustified”.

Italian leader Paolo Gentiloni also urged the European Commission in a letter this week to mobilise “a greater European effort to face the migrant phenomenon, which has a structural dimension and concerns the entire European Union”.

EU states had agreed to relocate 160,000 asylum seekers from Italy and Greece over a two-year period.

They relocated just 20,000 or so, however.

The Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia later boycotted the scheme, prompting legal action by the Commission.

Austria and Bulgaria did not publicly boycott the quotas, but did so in effect. Austria, which was due to take 1,953 people, has taken in no one, while Bulgaria, which was due to take 1,302 people, took just 50 from Greece.

France and Germany, which have complained about the EU quota rebels, have also fallen far short of their commitments.

Germany was due to take 27,536 people, but took about 7,000. The French quota was 19,714, but France took about 4,000 people.

The EU border crackdown has been criticised on humanitarian grounds.

The IOM said at least 2,405 people had died trying to cross the Mediterranean to the EU so far this year, compared to 3,193 in the same period last year.

The majority of those coming to Greece were fleeing the war in Syria. Many of those coming via Libya to Italy had fled poverty, but faced torture and sexual violence in Libyan detention camps, according to charities such as the UK-based Save the Children.

Andrew Rettman /EUobserver

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