April 18, 2018 / 2:36 PM / 3 months ago

From phones to hospitals, Austria plans to clamp down on refugees

VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria’s government is proposing to make it harder for refugees to become citizens, confiscate asylum seekers’ cash to pay for their upkeep and even seize their mobile phones to see where they came from.

Austria's Chancellor Sebastian Kurz attends a news conference after a cabinet meeting in Vienna, Austria April 18, 2018. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

The measures were included in a bill approved by the cabinet on Wednesday, as the coalition government of conservatives and the far right clamps down on the country’s migrants.

“We have very deliberately set ourselves the goal of fighting against illegal migration but also against the misuse of asylum,” Chancellor Sebastian Kurz told a news conference after the weekly cabinet meeting.

Austria took in more than 1 percent of its population in 2015 when Europe’s influx of migrants began, many of them fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa. Initial sympathy for the new arrivals soon turned to alarm as their numbers mounted.

That flow has since slowed to a trickle. But Kurz won last year’s election with a hard line on immigration, pledging to cut refugees’ benefits and fight radical Islamism.

Wednesday’s bill, which now must be passed by parliament, would push to 10 years from the current six the time refugees must wait to become citizens. That will bring the requirement in line with rules that apply to most people, the government said.

Some of the other measures were similar to those taken elsewhere in Europe - Denmark enacted measures in 2016 that included confiscating the valuables of refugees to pay for their stay. Austria would only seize cash - up to 840 euros ($1,040) - as do neighboring Germany and Switzerland.

Others measures were more original. One would force hospitals to tell the government when asylum seekers will be discharged, to ensure “more effective preparation and implementation of deportations”, a government summary said.

Seizing phones is a way to establish people’s identity or determine where they had been. But Heinz-Christian Strache, the far-right vice chancellor, said any evidence on the phones that crimes had been committed should also be handed over to the authorities.

Rights groups and the opposition called many of the measures illegal or excessive.

“The only thing this bill achieves is to create more uncertainty and mistrust among the population,” Amnesty International said in a statement on Monday as details of the bill were emerging.

“Displaced people are being lumped together by this government ... as cheats or as a security risk. This is not only wrong, it is also dangerous for our peaceful cohabitation,” it said.

Reporting by Francois Murphy, editing by Larry King

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