Austria backs migration centers in non-EU countries

Austria will this week propose that the EU open migration centers outside the bloc, according to a document seen by POLITICO.

The Alpine country, which holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU, has prepared an unofficial document ahead of a meeting of interior ministers in Innsbruck on Thursday. It says that in the case of a “negative final decision on an application for international protection,” the person in question “leaves the EU and is either transferred to his/her country of origin or possibly to a third country” — in the latter case the third country would be responsible for the rejected applicant after reaching a deal to respect EU standards, said an Austrian official.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz flagged a similar proposal in June. “We suggested a long time ago that it would make sense to offer protection outside of the European Union,” he said in Brussels ahead of the launch of the presidency — but without providing further detail.

The Innsbruck meeting is classed as “informal,” meaning that ministers cannot take formal decisions. Yet on the fringes of the summit there will be talks between countries for whom migration is top of the political agenda, including Germany’s Horst Seehofer and his Austrian and Italian counterparts, Herbert Kickl and Matteo Salvini, and between the latter and his French colleague Gerard Collomb.

It comes at a time when migration is causing political fights across the Continent. At the start of the month, it almost brought down the German government. To quell dissent in her conservative ranks, Chancellor Angela Merkel struck a deal with Seehofer that would see Berlin establish so-called transit zones along Germany’s southern border to allow for accelerated deportations of refugees not entitled to seek asylum in the country.

However, Austria and Italy said they would reintroduce border controls of their own if that happened, potentially putting at risk the survival of the passport-free Schengen zone. The Italian line is that it will not accept a deal on migration if it doesn’t get more solidarity from other EU countries and more support to tackle the problem in Libya, from where the majority of migrants cross to Sicily.

But EU diplomats are optimistic they will be able to find a compromise. “More than a deal, I expect a shared path to achieve the goals they have in common,” such as closing external borders and speeding up returns, said an EU diplomat who follows the migration dossier.

The Austrian document was “watered down as some language linking migration and security was considered inappropriate when it was time to ask for support of third countries,” said another EU diplomat, “there’s no scientific evidence to support it.”

Austria also circulated another document for discussion in which it spells out its proposal for migration centers in countries outside the EU for people who have received a negative decision. As they would be outside Europe, EU law wouldn’t apply but “return centers should be established within, as well as operated by, a third country, meet European standards and be compliant with applicable international and European human rights law” the document, seen by POLITICO, says. It mentions “possible incentives” for non-EU countries that agree to host a migration center, but doesn’t go into detail.

Together with the Danes, “we have been working on it for years,” said an Austrian official, adding that at a recent meeting of member countries and the Commission, “no legal obstacle has emerged.”

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