VIENNA The head of a party in Austria's coalition government on Wednesday called for further limits on the number of people entitled to apply for asylum, citing among his reasons a need to cut down on sexual assaults and criminality.
The government introduced a cap on asylum claims in January 2016, saying it could not cope with an influx like the one in 2015, in which Austria took in 90,000 asylum seekers, or more than 1 percent of its population.
The cap allows for 35,000 asylum applications this year.
"We want to halve this cap, we want to reduce it to around 17,000," Reinhold Mitterlehner, the head of the People's Party (OVP), told a news conference in Poellauberg. The OVP is the junior partner in the coalition.
Mitterlehner said that intergrating migrants and refugees had been difficult. The situation had been inflamed by asylum-seekers committing sexual assaults and criminal offences and by difficulties in deporting people who were not accepted for asylum, he said.
Christoph Riedl from the Catholic charity Caritas said that linking the issues was unfair.
"The increase in criminal offences is not proportional to the increase in the number of asylum seekers," Riedl told Reuters.
Among the latest incidents that police are investigating are alleged sexual attacks on 18 women during New Year's Eve celebrations in the western province of Tyrol.
In 2015, 39 asylum seekers were identified as rape suspects, and 91 in the first nine months of 2016, according to preliminary Interior Ministry figures.
Austria has not yet published the number of 2016 asylum applications but said that the cap of 37,500 has not been reached. If that had happened, an emergency decree would have entered into force which allows authorities to turn away asylum-seekers at its borders.
The 2017 quota was partly used up already because applications for which another EU country was responsible would be processed in Austria after a six-month waiting period, Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka, also from the OVP, said last month.
About 14,000 asylum applications filed last year could be admitted in 2017, Sobotka said.
(Reporting by Kirsti Knolle; Editing by Angus MacSwan)