March 28, 2017 / 10:56 AM / 4 months ago

Austria says wants exemption from EU migrant relocation system

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Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern arrives at a European Union leaders' summit in Brussels, Belgium March 10, 2017.Yves Herman

VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria will seek an exemption from having to accept more asylum-seekers under an EU relocation system, it said on Tuesday, arguing that it has already taken in its fair share during Europe's migration crisis.

The move is a new blow to the system that would cover only a fraction of migrant arrivals to the European Union and that has barely been implemented because of opposition led by Eastern European countries including Poland and Hungary.

It also coincides with a tightening of security and immigration rules by the centrist coalition government in Austria, where a wave of arrivals that began in 2015 helped fuel a rise in support for the far-right Freedom Party, which still leads in opinion polls.

"We believe an exception is necessary for Austria for having already fulfilled its obligation. We will discuss that with the European Commission," Chancellor Christian Kern told reporters after a weekly cabinet meeting. "We will send a letter as quickly as possible and then begin discussions."

Fewer than 14,500 asylum-seekers have been relocated from Greece and Italy, the first EU countries that many refugees and migrants from the Middle East and Africa set foot in, under the two-year EU plan that was supposed to cover 160,000 people and which expires in September.

"We are of the opinion ... that the people in question here already sought an asylum application or arrived in Italy or Greece," Kern said. "We must check whether we have already fulfilled our quota and discharged our obligation."

Austria took in roughly 90,000 asylum seekers in 2015, more than 1 percent of its population. More than a million migrants arrived in Germany that year, most of them having passed through Austria after crossing the Balkans from Greece.

Austria has repeatedly called on other EU countries to take their fair share, and has even backed the idea of financial penalties for those that do not.

The Commission granted Austria a temporary exception because of the large number of people it had taken in, but that has since expired.

"Austria is now expected to fulfil its legal obligation ... to start relocating," Commission spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud said.

The government has been seeking to erode support for the Freedom Party with a series of law-and-order measures and stricter immigration rules.

An "integration bill" agreed in cabinet on Tuesday would ban face-veils in public places and oblige unemployed refugees to perform jobs "of public utility" for no pay beyond their normal benefit payments.

Reporting by Francois Murphy; additional reporting by Waverly Colville in Brussels; Editing by Catherine Evans and Robin Pomeroy

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