SPIELFELD, Austria (Reuters) - Austria deployed police, soldiers and Black Hawk military helicopters on Tuesday in an exercise, overseen by the far-right interior minister, which enacted the arrival of hundreds of migrants on its border with Slovenia.
The drill, designed to show Austria’s preparedness for any repeat of Europe’s migration crisis, dovetailed with the right-wing government’s efforts to discourage migrants from setting off to find a home in central Europe.
Austria took in more than 1 percent of its population in asylum seekers during the 2015-2016 migration crisis, and Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s conservatives won last year’s election pledging to prevent a repeat of that influx. They govern in coalition with the far-right Freedom Party.
“A state that in the worst case cannot protect its borders loses its credibility,” Interior Minister Herbert Kickl of the Freedom Party told reporters.
“I am determined that events like those of 2015 must not occur again. And that is exactly the message we want to send from here.”
Neighbouring Slovenia however said the drill exaggerated the risk of another influx.
“The exercise is not needed. I see it even as a little provocative,” Slovenian Prime Minister Miro Cerar was quoted as saying by national news agency STA.
The exercise was carried out at Spielfeld, a crossing where Austria set up a large crowd-management system in early 2016 designed to handle up to 11,000 people a day, only for the number of arrivals to collapse soon afterwards.
In contrast to a smaller exercise held under the previous government, Tuesday’s drill did not involve migrants being violent or any arrests. But five military helicopters, including two Black Hawks, hovered overhead.
Two hundred trainee police officers acted the part of migrants seeking entry. The peaceful crowds were hemmed in by security forces and fed through a system of fences and other barriers.
Migration has returned to the top of the political agenda in Europe after the Bavarian sister party to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats last week gave her an ultimatum to broker a European immigration deal. The issue threatens to wreck her coalition government.
After meeting Germany’s Bavarian interior minister this month, Kurz called for an “axis of the willing” on illegal immigration including Italy, where the far right is also in government.
He is pushing for the European Union to set up centres outside its territory where asylum claims can be processed. He also wants migrants rescued in the Mediterranean to be taken back to Africa rather than transported to Europe.
Reporting by Lisi Neisner; additional reporting by Alexandra Schwarz-Goerlich in Vienna and Maja Zuvela in Sarajevo; writing by Francois Murphy; Editing by Richard Balmforth