FECL 52 (December 1997):

AUSTRIA AND ITALY: FULL SCHENGEN-MEMBERS. GREECE, STILL IN THE WAITING ROOM

The Schengen Executive Committee has agreed on a step by step integration of Austria and Italy into full Schengen cooperation to be completed by 1 April 1998. The full integration of Greece was once again postponed and shall be decided upon in the second half of 1998 at the latest. Decisions to this respect were taken by the Schengen the Ministers in October in Vienna, after a lengthy period of squabbling between the countries forming Schengen's hard core and the newcomers.

Germany, above all, and, less vocally, even France have repeatedly expressed concern about the newcomer states' ability to protect their external frontiers against illegal immigration. Austria, Italy and Greece all have long external borders which are difficult to control.

A July meeting in Austria between Prime Minister Romano Prodi, Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Austrian Premier Viktor Klima appeared to clear up many German concerns over the security of Italy's and Austria's non-EU borders. Significantly, Greece was not even invited to that "mini-summit".

The Executive Committee's decision of October to grant Austria and Italy full membership not at once, but in a step by step way, reveals that Germany is still uncomfortable with the idea of abolishing controls at its borders with its southern Schengen-neighbours.

Under the agreement reached in Vienna, Austrian citizens may travel without passport control to any other Schengen state, as from 1 December, provided, however, they travel by air. At land, checks at Austria's borders with Germany and Italy will be dropped as from1 April 1998.

The only concession made to Greece was its full participation in the SIS as from 1 December. According to a spokesman of the Austrian Interior Minister Schlögl, the Greek representative in the Executive Committee had at first threatened to block the decisions pertaining to Austria and Italy, if a positive decision was not taken at the same time with regard to Greece. Italy then proposed the compromise formula that finally brought about agreement.

 

Austrian clamp-down on migrants

To Austrian government circles the Executive Committees decision came as a relief. In the year preceding the decision, the German Land of Bavaria repeatedly and loudly claimed that its security was endangered because of allegedly deficient Austrian border controls. The Bavarian accusations triggered a range of Austrian police and customs operations at its Eastern and Southern borders, aimed at demonstrating the country's ability to clamp down on illegal immigrants.

 

Man-hunt in the Austrian land of Carinthia

The most spectacular operations took place in the Austrian land of Carinthia which borders on Slovenia and Italy.

In a May prelude to this activity, the Carinthian police arrested 95 Kurdish immigrants hidden in a Croatian container truck. According to the police, they were on their way to Bavaria.

In late August, 350 Carinthian Gendarmes carried out "Operation Network", a large-scale raid,, aimed against illegal immigrant workers. In one night, some 2,000 foreigners were identity-checked; many of them after being torn out of their beds. The operation resulted in the arrest of 5 illegal immigrants...

One week later, again in Carinthia, border police and Gendarmerie, using modern night-sight devices, tracked down and surrounded a group of 30 unarmed Romanians who were preparing to cross the green border with Slovenia in the area of Gailitz. But apparently, something went wrong. Most of the immigrants escaped in the dark night. One police officer was thrown to the ground by an immigrant run-away. The officer shot and seriously wounded the man, allegedly in "self-defence". Six women surrendered to the police.

The regrettable incident in no way slowed down the ongoing operation. The following days, a whole company of gendarmerie, supported by a helicopter and dogs carried out what the Carinthian authorities themselves called a "large-scale man hunt". As if a war had broken out, the authorities dramatically called on the population not to "fall into panic when seeing a foreigner" and to report "suspects" to the police.

Reacting to public criticism of the operation, the deputy head of the regional government, Michael Ausserwinkler, said: "The gendarmerie acted correctly and are merely fulfilling their duty, imposed by Schengen, to protect our external frontiers".

The police operations at the Austrian borders are accompanied by alarmist media reports of a threatening and unprecedented mass influx of refugees. In example, the Carinthian daily newspaper, Kärntner Tageszeitung, quoting "unofficial information from top level Austrian government authorities", claimed only days after the man-hunt that about 20,000 people were waiting in Sarajevo alone for an opportunity to escape to Western Europe and, in particular, Germany. Recent incidents involving migrants in Carinthia were only the tip of an iceberg, the newspaper warned.

 

Austro-Hungarian relations at a strain

Austria's Schengen membership is also putting strain on the country's relations with Hungary.

Austrian authorities' efforts to improve controls at its eastern frontiers have lead to traffic jams and long waiting times at the Austro-Hungarian border. Already in March the Hungarian government complained about the situation at the borders which threatened to affect the country's tourism industry. Moreover, Hungary is unhappy with recent Austrian restrictions for the Hungarian work force.

After a meeting with Hungarian Deputy Prime Minister Gabor Kuncze, in late October in Budapest, the Austrian Interior Minister, Karl Schlögl, said Austria was keen to help Hungary boost its border guard and stop illegal immigrants. "Hungary is currently in the lucky position of being a transit rather than a target country for illegal immigrants. But Austria, Germany and Italy are targets", Schlögl said. The Minister said a lot of illegal immigrants were arriving in Austria through the Hungarian border and added that "Hungary will probably be more interested in introducing stricter border controls with the improvement of the economic situation".

When the Hungarian Deputy Prime Minister pointed out that Austria handed over 1,600 illegal migrants to Hungary under a two-year-old readmission agreement, Schlögl replied dryly that Hungary had refused to readmit 400 illegal migrants between May and August 1997 alone. He added that problems usually occur when the illegal migrants are undocumented. "They are increasingly coming from Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, or even Africa. Of course, Hungary's interest to take them back will be slim".

"Our most important goal is that when Hungary becomes an EU member, it should be able, and mature enough, to implement the Schengen procedure as quick as possible", Schlögl continued. He stressed that in one year (1996) Austria had spent 3 billion Schillings (more than 288 million dollars) on high-tech equipment and deployed 5,000 more border guards to be able to come up to Schengen standards. The equipment included a carbon-dioxide detector, which enabled Austrian border guards to find 50 percent more illegal immigrants hidden in trucks than before.

 

Sources: Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 8.10.97, 13.3.97, 15/16.3.97; Kärntner Tageszeitung, 28 and 29.8.97; AFP, Budapest, 29.10.97; Report by Heinz Fronek, Asylkoordination, 2.9.97; European Voice, 18-24.9.97.