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Tensions rising between Austria and Italy over migrants

26.7.2017 9:58
A photograph of a refugee arriving in Europe by sea from a Czech exhibition called
A photograph of a refugee arriving in Europe by sea from a Czech exhibition called "I, refugee" ("Já, uprchlík"). (PHOTO: Jana Plavec)

Tensions are continuing to rise between Austria and Italy over disagreements about how to deal with migrants entering Europe. The chair of the Socialist group in the European Parliament (EP), Italian MEP Gianni Pittella, has accused the Austrian Foreign Minister of wanting to transform one of the Italian islands in the Mediterranean Sea into a "concentration camp".

An Austrian MEP for the Austrian People's Party has called that remark an "incomprehensible exaggeration". The mayor of the Italian island concerned, however, has also compared the Austrian Foreign Minister to a neo-Nazi.

Rome has been fighting with Vienna once again since the beginning of the month over Austria's threats to reintroduce controls at their common border. On Thursday, 20 July, Pittella, a member of Italy's governing Democratic Party (PD), accused Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, who is also the chair of the Austrian People's Party (ÖVP), of wanting to "transform Lampedusa into a concentration camp for migrants".

That island lies roughly halfway between Libya and Sicily and frequently becomes the place where migrants first arrive on European territory after sailing from the North African coast. "That is not the Europe we are striving for," Pittella said.

The Italian MEP was responding to reports of a conversation between Kurz and his Italian counterpart, Angelino Alfano. In the exchange, Kurz insisted that Rome should no longer allow migrants to cross from the Italian island onto the European mainland.

Pittella's remark was sharply criticized on Monday, 24 July by, among other people, the chair of the Austrian delegation at the EP, MEP Otmar Karas, a member of the ÖVP. Karas said the Italian politician's remark was an "incomprehensible exaggeration" and "absolutely beyond the pale".

Karas has called on Pittella to apologize to the Austrian Foreign Minister. Also on Monday, Italian Foreign Minister Alfano called Kurz's demands of Italy an "idea for the Austrian election campaign".

Early elections have been called in Austria for 15 October. One of the main rivals to Kurz's party is the anti-immigrant, right-wing Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), which according to observers is doing its best to take voters away from the Austrian Foreign Minister's party through its own populist rhetoric.

In recent weeks Italian politicians have accused their Austrian colleagues more than once of taking Italy and its immigration dilemma prisoner during the Austrian election campaign. At the beginning of July, Austrian Defense Minister Hans Peter Doskozil threated to introduce border controls at the Brenner Pass crossing if the rate at which migrants are arriving from Italy does not abate.

Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern later ameliorated that statement, but on Tuesday Austrian Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka reiterated that Vienna is prepared to close its border with Italy from one day to the next. "I would expect a remark like that from some neo-Nazi, not from a representative of a European Union Member State," Salvatore Martello, the Mayor of Lampedusa, said of the Austrian Foreign Minister's demands.

"Kurz apparently has no idea how big Lampedusa is," Martello noted. "He forgets that 6 000 people live here."

Most migrants arriving in Europe today choose to travel from the North African coast across the Mediterranean Sea to Italy. According to current data, 93 360 migrants have arrived in the southern European country that way so far this year.

Italy is currently taking care of 200 000 migrants total in different facilities, and according to the Italian Interior Ministry, those arriving in the country now are mainly citizens of Bangladesh, Gambia, Guinea, Ivory Coast and Nigeria. People fleeing war-torn coutnries such as Iraq or Syria are in the minority among migrant flows so far this year.

ČTK, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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