Italy ups migrant controls at Alpine pass to stop Austrian checks

ROME (Reuters) - Italy said on Friday it had deployed 110 more guards to keep migrants from traveling into Austria, after Vienna threatened to introduce tighter border controls that could have hurt trade.

A car passes a street sign reading 'Austria' in the Italian village of Brenner on the Italian - Austrian boarder, March 3, 2016. REUTERS/Dominic Ebenbichler

Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano, speaking alongside his Austrian counterpart Wolfgang Sobotka at the Brenner Pass, said the extra guards would patrol the Alpine crossing point between the two countries.

Both Italy and Austria are members of the European Union’s Schengen open-border zone, but Vienna said last month it would erect a fence at the border and slow traffic along the highway that crosses it if there was a surge in migrant arrivals this summer.

“Migrants who arrive here thinking to go to Austria will be taken to Italian shelters,” Alfano said at the Brenner Pass in comments broadcast live by SkyTG24.

“A plan to slow traffic would have an enormous impact on trade and travelers,” he added. The pass is Italy’s main commercial route to Germany, its top trading partner, by way of Austria.

Alfano said Brenner controls would be similar to those already in force in Ventimiglia, where migrants are taken off trains or stopped on the road from crossing the border into France.

As of May 10, 31,250 migrants had reached Italy by boat this year, a 14 percent decline from the same period last year, according to the Interior Ministry, but authorities expect the numbers to surge this summer.

Italy’s announcement appeared aimed at easing tensions after Vienna’s announcement of a plan for a 370-metre fence at Brenner drew fire from Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who said last month it was a “shameless” infraction of European rules.

“If Italy carries on acting as it has done until now, namely by carrying out controls on trains, at its interior borders and at exit points, then there is no need (for controls),” Sobotka’s spokeswoman said after the two ministers met on Friday.

The fence has not been built, but preparations for future controls are still being made as a precaution, an Austrian Interior Ministry spokesman said.

In the past two years, more than 320,000 boat migrants have arrived on Italian shores, and many made their way to Northern Europe by way of the Brenner Pass.

Italy’s coastguard said it helped rescue 801 migrants from two boats off western Sicily on Thursday.

The number of migrants arriving in Greece dropped 90 percent in April, the European Union border agency said on Friday, after an agreement was reached with Turkey to control the flow.

Additional reporting by Francois Murphy in Vienna; writing by Steve Scherer; editing by Andrew Roche