Davos Deferred as Austria Grapples With Biggest Crisis Since War

  • Vice-Chancellor Mitterlehner cancels scheduled Swiss trip
  • Austria said to face greatest challenge since World War II

Austrian Vice-Chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner skipped a scheduled appearance at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to help formulate a plan limiting the number of refugees who can stay in the country.

Following a Wednesday meeting in Vienna between local, regional and national officials, Austria’s coalition government said the number of people given asylum in Austria shouldn’t exceed 1.5% of the population over the next four years. After taking in 90,000 people last year, the nation of 8.4 million plans to limit the number of refugees to 37,500 this year and 35,000 in 2017, Mitterlehner said in a statement.

“This is the hardest problem we’ve had to resolve in the Second Republic,” Mitterlehner said on ORF television before the meeting, in a reference to the modern Austrian state created after World War II . “We cannot maintain this dynamic -- it creates quantitative and qualitative as well as cultural problems.”

It isn’t clear whether Austria’s decision to limit the number of asylum seekers it accepts conforms to European or international law. The 1951 Refugee Convention, to which Austria is a signatory, says it’s a human right to seek asylum from persecution. The vast majority of people who’ve entered Austria in the past year have been fleeing violence in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

‘Plan B’

“This has to be in conformity with European laws,” Chancellor Werner Faymann said in a separate statement, adding that lawyers are reviewing the proposal. Faymann is a Social Democrat, while Mitterlehner is from the conservative People’s Party. The government’s decision is a “Plan B” to strengthen Austria’s border controls while the European Union searches for a way to distribute asylum seekers equitably, the chancellor said.

German President Joachim Gauck said Wednesday in Davos that European policy makers need to find ways to limit the influx of refugees so they can win public support. Such moves “can be morally and politically even necessary” to preserve the ability of the state to shoulder the burden, Gauck said in a speech.

Austria’s nationalist Freedom Party, which has gained in polls after aggressively speaking out against the government’s refugee policy, criticized Wednesday’s compromise to limit asylum-seeker numbers.

“This limit is as watertight as a colander and will remain so in the immediate future,” Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache said in a statement. “The solution can only be zero immigration because Austria has already exceeded its capacity limits.”

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