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Austria wants to organize deportations with partner countries

Sebastian Kurz and his Interior Minister Nehammer no longer want to wait for the EU strategy on asylum and migration, but instead want to arrange for returns from the Balkans themselves. In addition, Austria and Greece remain close partners on the Evros border.

The Austrian Interior Minister Karl Nehammer (ÖVP, since 2017: The New People's Party) is busy traveling these days. Last week he was in Copenhagen to find out about the plans and progress of his Danish colleagues in reforming the asylum law and the voluntary return of migrants without a right to stay. This Wednesday and Thursday he will take part in a migration conference in Prague, at which the partners of the “Salzburg Forum” will meet in a large group. According to its own understanding, the forum is a Central European security partnership, but with a clear impact on the Balkans. In addition to Austria and the Visegrád states, Croatia, Slovenia, Romania and Bulgaria are members. The Western Balkans and Moldova have observer status.

Together they want to exchange ideas on the topics of illegal migration, border protection and repatriations. The focus will probably be on the »repatriation plan« drawn up by Vienna, with which rapid deportations from the Balkan states are to be implemented. According to the Vienna Chancellery, there are currently around 80,000 illegal migrants in Greece and the Western Balkans. That creates the pressure that makes Austria act. At this point, Nehammer speaks similarly to the social democratic government in Denmark when he says: "We have to maintain social peace but also ensure that the system is not overloaded."

Instead of waiting for major EU strategies that may never come, the forum wants to set standards itself. In Nehammer's words, this sounds a bit aggressive: "While the EU asylum and migration strategy is still being negotiated, we are taking concrete steps together with the Balkan countries in the fight against illegal migration."

If the Vienna repatriation plan goes, migrants with "no likelihood of staying" are to be flown back to their countries of origin by charter flight. Nehammer already explained the strategy in April as follows: “We have to send the right signals to the countries of origin. Many irregular migrants making their way to Europe are not allowed to stay. It has to be clear: Those who do not have the right to asylum must be brought back home." And that has to start at the gates of the EU - including the Western Balkans, where "there are currently many irregular migrants ". The aim is to deprive people smugglers of their business base and to send a discouraging signal to illegal migrants. It's almost a familiar sound from politicians who want to tackle illegal migration. The fact that we are hearing it more often now is a sign that there is resistance to it.

Kurz thanks Greece
In between, a Western Balkans conference took place last week, at which Sebastian Kurz thanked everyone who had been invited for their contribution to securing the border. In addition to the Balkan countries represented, he only mentioned one other country by name and thanked it for its part in protecting the EU's external border. It was Greece that the Austrians also support bilaterally on the Evros border. The relationship between the two countries is considered close. On a visit to Greece in August, Nehammer said: "The borders of Greece are also the borders of Austria." Not on the Hindu Kush, as the German Defense Minister Struck once said, but on the Evros, its own borders are defended.

The Cobra Task Force has been stationed on the Greek-Turkish land border for more than a year. In addition to Austria, Poland, the Czech Republic and the Republic of Cyprus also sent police officers to the Evros border when there was an emergency there in March and April. The Austrians from the EKO (European Operations Command) Cobra stayed the longest, up to the present day. This close cooperation, which runs alongside the Frontex mission and goes beyond it, was recently even celebrated once.

Mitarakis honors EKO Cobra
A few days earlier, Nehammer had invited the Greek asylum and migration minister, this time perhaps more the border protection minister, Notis Mitarakis, to Vienna to honor the Austrian EKO. On this occasion, Mitarakis presented the head of the unit, Johann Rieger, with an award from the Greek state. He emphasized that the use of the EKO Cobra is not only “an essential contribution” to border protection, but also an “act of symbolic value” that is perceived both inside and outside the EU. Austria acts as a "good friend and important partner of Greece". Together they fend off the instrumentalization of illegal immigration by Turkey.

For his part, Nehammer praised the Greeks for the resolute protection of their national borders, which are also the external borders of the EU. Mitarakis was certain that Austria and Greece would continue to work closely together on this point. Mitarakis apparently did not want to join the Austrian-run mechanism for returns - Athens still seems to be placing its hopes on the EU. Indeed, the idea has long haunted Greek politicians that the EU's bargaining power could help smaller states with deportations. Nothing like this has happened so far.

Mitarakis also met Michael Spindelegger, a party friend of Nehammer, who today chairs the International Center for Migration Policy Development. The think tank founded by Austria and Switzerland is dedicated to researching migration flows and is intended to provide recommendations for politics based on this. Greece is also said to be thinking of joining the ICMPD and would then be the 19th member. The goals of this center cannot be clearly identified, as is usually the case with a supranational association of some size. Because what does the motto “Making Migration Better” mean in concrete terms? Does "better" mean faster, higher, more? Or is it slower, smaller, less? The government in Vienna should also answer this question more clearly in the long term.

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