UPDATED at 10:55 a.m. EST to reflect Austria’s decision not to patrol the border.
Austria has backed down from deploying troops and armored vehicles to patrol its border with Italy, a day after threatening to do so amid growing tensions in Europe over a surge of migrants arriving across the Mediterranean.
Austria’s Defense Minister Hans Peter Doskozil had said Tuesday that he expected border controls would be introduced “very soon” at the Brenner Pass, a busy Alpine crossing between northern Italy and Austria, in order to stop migrants from reaching Austrian soil. As members of the European Union’s border-free Schengen zone, there are usually no border controls between the two countries.
But following a call between Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern and Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni Wednesday, Austria announced it had shelved the plans. “Austria will not carry out any controls on the Brenner borders at the moment, and it is not set to resort to using the army in the immediate future,” said Kern.
The issue has flared up as the number of migrants arriving illegally in Italy via boats from North Africa has soared in recent weeks, with nearly 9,000 arriving in one four-day stretch in late June alone.
Italy, which has overtaken Greece as the key arrival point for illegal migrants into the EU, is expected to receive a record number of irregular migrants arriving from north Africa via the Mediterranean this year. So far about 85,000, the majority from sub-Saharan Africa, have arrived on Italy’s shores this year – 20 percent more than at the same period in 2016 – stirring European anxieties about how to respond to the crisis.
On June 28, Italian officials threatened to close their ports to migrant rescue ships operated by humanitarian groups that weren’t flying the Italian flag, amid accusations that close coordination between people smugglers and certain aid groups was helping to fuel the crisis.
Before the phone call between Kern and Gentiloni, Italy had responded to Doskozil’s remarks by summoning Austria’s ambassador to Italy and calling for EU sanctions on their neighbor. Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti said there was no issue at the Brenner Pass, and called the statement “an unjustified and unprecedented initiative which, if not immediately corrected, will inevitably create repercussions on security cooperation.”
With most boats carrying migrants across the Mediterranean heading for the Italian coast, the country has complained that it is bearing the brunt of the crisis, prompting France, Germany, and EU officials to pledge this week to offer more support.
Immigration has been a hot button issue in Europe since 2015, when an influx of hundreds of thousands of migrants began arriving at the EU’s borders, headed for affluent northern European countries. The crisis helped fuel a rise in support for right-wing parties, including Austria’s Freedom Party, which had previously promised to introduce border controls at the Brenner Pass.
Officials in South Tyrol, the Italian region bordering Austria, said the calls for troops seemed to have more to do with politicking than responding to any realities on the border. “The constantly repeated announcements of such measures probably are related to the fact that there will be elections in Austria this fall,” South Tyrol governor Arno Kompatscher said Tuesday.
At least 2,150 migrants have died so far in 2017 attempting the perilous crossing.