Italy summons Austria envoy over border controls

Austria FM says country ready to ‘protect’ borders amid growing concerns over influx of migrants and refugees in Italy.

Austria to tighten checks at Italian border
Austria has long warned that it will impose strict controls at the Brenner mountain pass [Reuters]

Italy has summoned Austria’s ambassador after Vienna said it would likely set up strict controls to stop migrants and refugees from passing the border between the two countries. 

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Austrian Ambassador Rene Pollitzer was called to the Italian foreign ministry’s headquarters in Rome on Tuesday “following the Austrian government’s statement about deploying troops to the Brenner (pass)”, the ministry said in a statement.

Hans Peter Doskozil, Austrian defence minister, was quoted on Monday saying his country would “very soon” impose border checks and deploy soldiers on its frontier with Italy if the influx of migrants across the Mediterranean does not slow.

“I expect that very soon border controls will be activated and that an assistance deployment (by the military) will be requested,” he told the online edition of the Krone daily newspaper.

He was cited as saying that this move was “indispensable if the inflow into Italy does not ease”. The newspaper said that 750 soldiers were ready for deployment within 72 hours and that four armoured vehicles had already been sent to the border area. 

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Al Jazeera’s Sonia Gallego, reporting from Catania in Italy, said it was not the first time that a diplomatic dispute had erupted between the neighbouring countries. 

“Certainly it is a sign that the refugee crisis in Europe is still in need of a proper solution across the continent,” she said.   

With the advent of summer, what everyone is fearing is a repetition of the previous summers when thousands of refugees crossed into Europe, our correspondent added.    

Since last year, Vienna has been warning that it will impose strict controls at the Brenner mountain pass if Rome is unable to stop arrivals from travelling north.

But politicians in northern Italy pointed out that there is no increase in migration in their region, and they linked Tuesday’s developments to Austria’s parliamentary elections in October.

“The situation at the Brenner is stable, calm – even statistics say this,” said Arno Kompatscher, the head of Italy’s province of South Tyrol, also known as Alto Adige.

Austria and Italy are already cooperating on border controls, he pointed out.

“In Austria they are in an election mood,” he told Italian newswire Adnkronos.

“Rather than talking about tanks, we need to organise ourselves to give a hand to Italy and tackle the phenomenon already in Africa,” he said.

Eleonora Poli, researcher at the Italian Institute of International Affairs, also questioned the timing of Austria’s decision.

“Playing the migration card might help traditional parties to acquire legitimacy needed to win the election,” Poli told Al Jazeera. “My understanding is that it is more of a political game than an actual need to control the border with Italy.”    

Arrivals up 20 percent

Austria’s interior ministry acknowledged that the inflow to Italy has not yet created problems at the Brenner pass. Police have not yet seen rising numbers of irregular border crossings in southern Austria, ministry official Gerald Tatzgern told public radio.

Yet, Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s foreign minister, on Tuesday told the Austrian Press Agency that both Italy and the European Union need to know that “we are ready to protect our Brenner border if necessary”.

Controls at the Brenner pass could also disrupt cargo traffic, and could cause considerable delays for German tourists during the summer holidays.

“Border checks would lead to a very tense traffic situation,” the German motorist club ADAC said in a statement.

Every year, more than five million cars cross the mountain pass, many of them from Germany.

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Italy’s interior ministry said on Monday that the migrant and refugee arrivals so far this year have risen by nearly 20 percent compared with the same timeframe in 2016.

It added that more than 85,000 migrants and refugees had reached Italian shores after being rescued in the central Mediterranean compared with the 71,000 at this time last year.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), more than 12,000 migrants and refugees arrived in southern Italy in the past week, most of whom came by boat from Africa, making Italy the main point of entry to Europe.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies