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Austria to cap refugee flow at 3,200 a day, with Slovenia's help

VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria will limit the number of migrants it lets in at 3,200 a day from Friday, the country’s interior minister said, turning an annual cap on asylum claims into a daily entry quota that is likely to cause backlogs on the main refugee route into Europe.

Austria, the last stop on the way to Germany for the hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants who have flocked to Europe since September, is increasingly diverging from its big neighbour by taking steps to restrict the influx.

“We must apply the brakes step by step,” Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner told reporters.

Austria’s move to tighter border controls is seconded by Slovenia, which plans similar policies in solidarity.

“A backlog could develop, but Slovenia will also take further steps in agreement with us,” she said. Germany is also likely to announce its own border restrictions, Mikl-Leitner said, without elaborating.

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The Slovenian Interior Minister Vesna Gyorkos Znidar said that Slovenia would step up controls on the border with its European Union neighbour Croatia, which is not part of the Schengen zone of free movement within Europe.

“The number of migrants Slovenia will receive will be within the (daily) quota imposed by Austria,” she told a news conference.

After initially throwing open its borders with Germany six months ago, Austria has progressively tightened its entry restrictions, first largely in step with Berlin, and now apparently without Germany’s approval.

Around 1,000 migrants a day have been arriving at Austria’s busiest crossing, on the border with Slovenia. That is far fewer than the 15,700 who came from Hungary in one day at the height of the migration crisis, but the pace is expected to pick up in spring.

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Vienna will also cap asylum claims at 80 a day, Mikl-Leitner said. Over a year, that is 20 percent below Austria’s maximum of 37,500 for 2015, but Mikl-Leitner said the relatives of successful asylum seekers also needed to be factored in to the annual total.

“These upper limits are a further step, and further measures and further steps will follow,” she said, adding that Germany has for months had its own daily limit of roughly 6,000, which has at times caused backlogs in Austria.

Austria, which stretches from Slovakia to Switzerland, has largely served as a conduit into Germany, but it has also taken in a similar number of asylum seekers to its larger neighbour, relative to its smaller population.

It has beefed up controls at its busiest border crossing and is preparing barriers and fences at other points on the frontier in case people try to circumvent it.

Austria is awaiting legal advice on what to do if its annual quota of asylum claims is filled. One option being considered is not to process any excess claims, and another is to stop people at the border, Mikl-Leitner said.

Earlier in the day the Slovenian government said it asked the parliament to approve the assistance of the armed forces to police in control of the state border.

Francois Murphy and Alexandra Schwarz-Goerlich, additional reporting by Igor Ilic, edited by Tom Miles