Austria's Parliament has passed a new asylum law that provides for the processing of asylum applications within 72 hours, during which time authorities can immediately reject them or decide to allot time for a closer examination.
The legislation passed on October 23 after heated debate, with the support of the far-right coalition of the People's Party (ÖVP) and Freedom Party (FPÖ). The opposition Social Democrats (SPÖ) and Green Party voted against the law, which will take effect May 1, 2004.
Interior Minister Ernst Strasser (ÖVP), whose ministry handles asylum claims, welcomed the new law and told parliament that his staff "will make decisions more quickly," adding that "Austria remains an open house for people who need asylum, but this is not an open door." The FPÖ's spokesperson for judicial affairs, Helene Partik-Pablé, told the press that she welcomes having one of Europe's most restrictive asylum laws.
Although asylum requests have remained fairly stable across Europe in the last year, Austria's share of the total has increased slightly. Based on the data tracked by the United Nations High Comissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan, Austria's share of the total has increased from five percent in 2001 to six percent in 2002. In terms of asylum applications lodged, Austria is the fourth-largest asylum-seeker receiving country in the EU, receiving over 36,400 applications in 2002. It follows the UK, Germany, and France. In the last few years, roughly one in five asylum appeals in Austria has been granted.
Several non-governmental organizations, as well as UNHCR, criticized the bill fiercely before its passage, particularly for its restrictions on the asylum appeals process and the potential for "refoulement" (forced return to an unsafe situation).
The new law is contentious on several grounds, including its stipulation that during an appeal, new evidence of the persecution of the applicant can be exhibited only in exceptional cases, e.g., if the asylum seeker is alleged to be a victim of torture. In addition, the new measures allow for the deportation of a rejected applicant during an appeal process if he or she arrived from a "safe" third country, is the responsibility of another member state of the European Union, or submits an application that is "manifestly unfounded."
"Appeals are an essential means to ensure that initial mistaken decisions can be corrected," Erika Feller, UNHCR's senior jurist, told the press prior to the vote. UNHCR also emphasized that the restrictions on the appeals procedure are unique among EU member states.
Several legal experts, as well, have commented in the press that these provisions are unconstitutional. For instance, they pointed out that the new deportation measures concerning rejected asylum seekers rule out interviews with the applicants during their appeal. This would be an unlawful constriction of base rights.
Moreover, the new law eliminates the chance to apply for asylum at the Austrian border. The legal possibilities will be limited to embassies and airports. Analysts say this could boost human smuggling and illegal migration.
The new law looks to remain a flashpoint for differences on migration policy, because the SPÖ has already announced that it will file a lawsuit with the Supreme Court seeking to have the new law declared unconstitutional.