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Austria's border fence condemned by bishop

29 April 2016


Critical: Ban Ki-moon speaks to the lower house of the Austrian parliament, in Vienna, on Thursday

Critical: Ban Ki-moon speaks to the lower house of the Austrian parliament, in Vienna, on Thursday

AN ANTI-MIGRANT border fence in Austria, which is to be built across church property, “would be contrary to the spirit of the gospel” and the will of the Pope, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Eisenstadt in Burgenland state, the Rt Revd Ägidius Zsifkovics, has said.

The Austrian government is building the barrier along its southern border with Hungary to prevent migrants from entering the country illegally, The Daily Telegraph reported on Monday. Part of the proposed fence, however, cuts across land owned by the diocese, which has not given permission for its construction.

In a letter to the Austrian government this week, Bishop Zsifkokvics wrote that erecting a barrier across church land would be inappropriate for a diocese that had “lived for decades in the shadow of the Iron Curtain”, and where churches had “spared no effort in recent months opening the door to people in flight, providing a roof over their heads, dignity, and warmth”.

The decision will force Austrian authorities to leave a gap in a border fence for the second time; winemakers along the border with Slovenia refused permission last year for a section to be built across their vineyards.

Austria has recently introduced new policies to limit the number of asylum-seekers entering the country. It said that it had already admitted 90,000 last year, and has capped the number admitted to 37,500 this year. Since January, the government has received more than 16,000 asylum claims.

“We need to need to tackle today’s problems at root,” Bishop Zsifkokvics said, “and that means stopping organised human trafficking, stopping European arms sales, stopping war and the deliberate destabilisation of the Middle East, and stopping the exploitation of African raw materials and agriculture by European firms.”

The letter was dispatched after a visit by Pope Francis to refugee camps on the Greek Island of Lesbos last week; he returned to Rome accompanied by two refugee families (News, 22 April).

On Wednesday the Austrian parliament voted 98 to 67 in favour of enforcing some of the toughest asylum laws in Europe, days after far-right politician, Norbert Hofer, of the Freedom Party, won the first round of presidential elections. MPs expect to begin applying the law in June.

Religious leaders, human rights groups, and opposition parties are reported to have condemned the legislation, under which the government can declare a “state of emergency” should the number of refugees in the country rise dramatically, and reject refugees at the border itself, including those who have fled war in Syria.

The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, later criticised “increasingly restrictive” asylum policies in Europe in a speech to the Austrian parliament, though he did not specify any country. He told MPs on Thursday: “I am concerned that European countries are now adopting increasingly restrictive immigration and refugee policies. Such policies negatively affect the obligation of member states under international humanitarian law and European law.”

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