August 28, 2017 / 3:17 PM / 2 years ago

U.N. refugee agency chides Austria over "xenophobic" politics before vote

VIENNA (Reuters) - The U.N. refugee agency has denounced “xenophobic debates” in Austrian politics ahead of a parliamentary election in October, calling on political parties to set a more inclusive tone and do more to help those seeking sanctuary.

Austria’s election campaign has yet to fully emerge from a long summer lull, but immigration has been a major theme in what little debate there has been so far. The issue has dominated politics since Austria was swept up in Europe’s migration crisis in 2015.

The far-right Freedom Party’s candidate came close to winning the country’s presidential election last year, helped by widespread concerns about security and the economy after the country took in more than 1 percent of its population in asylum seekers during the 2015 influx.

The Freedom Party has since lost its lead in opinion polls to the conservative People’s Party, led by 31-year-old Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, who has made a hard line on immigration one of his hallmarks. Kurz has also said Muslim kindergartens risk creating “parallel societies” and should not exist.

“In recent years a considerable amount has been achieved in Austria in taking in, providing for and integrating refugees,” the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said in a statement posted on its Austrian arm’s website on Monday.

“At the same time, however, we view xenophobic debates and exclusionary tendencies with concern. We call on all democratic parties to carry out political debates thoughtfully and to put what unites above what divides,” it added.

The statement, which did not mention any parties by name, was issued with list of suggested improvements to Austria’s handling of refugees.

Those included immediately providing a guardian for unaccompanied minors and granting refugees the same benefits as Austrians — a response to provinces of various political shades curbing welfare payments for new arrivals such as refugees.

Chancellor Christian Kern’s Social Democrats (SPO) are in government with Kurz’s conservatives. Together they passed a range of law-and-order measures this year, including a ban on Muslim face-covering veils.

The Social Democrats have focused their campaign on issues such as jobs and the economy rather than immigration, but they have also sought to appear tough on securing Austria’s borders, prompting a spat with Italy last month.

“Political debates that are conducted at refugees’ expense reinforce xenophobic tendencies,” the UNHCR said, adding that “some people confuse the refugee issue with a security debate”.

Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Toby Chopra

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