October 31, 2018 / 6:02 PM / in 15 days

Austria to shun global migration pact, fearing creep in human rights

VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria will follow the United States and Hungary in backing out of a United Nations migration pact over concerns it will blur the line between legal and illegal migration, the right-wing government said on Wednesday.

FILE PHOTO: Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz attends a news conference in Vienna, Austria July 3, 2018. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger/File Photo

The Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration was approved in July by all 193 member nations except the United States, which backed out last year.

Hungary’s right-wing government has since said it will not sign the final document at a ceremony in Morocco in December. Poland, which has also clashed with Brussels by resisting national quotas for asylum seekers, has said it is considering the same step.

“Austria will not join the U.N. migration pact,” said Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, a conservative and immigration hard-liner who governs in coalition with the far-right Freedom Party.

“We view some points of the migration pact very critically, such as the mixing up of seeking protection with labour migration,” said Kurz, who argues that migrants rescued in the Mediterranean should not be brought straight to Europe.

U.N. Special Representative for International Migration Louise Arbour called the move regrettable and mistaken and said the compact simply aimed to improve the management of cross-border movements of people.

“It is no possible sense of the word an infringement on state sovereignty - it is not legally binding, it’s a framework for cooperation,” she told Reuters.

Vienna currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, a role that usually involves playing a mediating role to bridge divisions within the bloc. Instead its move highlighted the disagreements on migration that have blighted relations among the 28 member states for years.

The Austrian government is concerned that signing up to the pact, even though it is not binding, could eventually help lead to the recognition of a “human right to migration”. The text of a cabinet decision formally approving its move on Wednesday said it would argue against such a right.

“We reject any movement in that direction,” Freedom Party leader and Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache told a news conference after the weekly cabinet meeting.

Arbour said such concerns were unfounded.

“The question of whether this is an invidious way to start promoting a ‘human right to migrate’ is not correct. It’s not in the text, there’s no sinister project to advance that.”

Austria took in roughly 1 percent of its population in asylum seekers in 2015 during a migration crisis in which more than a million people travelled to Europe, many of them fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere.

That experience dominated last year’s parliamentary election and helped propel Kurz’s conservatives to power. He has said he will prevent any repeat of that influx and has implemented policies that include restricting benefits for new immigrants.

The U.N. pact addresses issues such as how to protect people who migrate, how to integrate them into new countries and how to return them to their home countries.

The United Nations has hailed it as a historic and comprehensive pact that could serve as a basis for future policies.

Austria will not send an envoy to the signing ceremony in Morocco and will abstain at a U.N. General Assembly vote on the pact next year, Kurz’s office said.

In a paper this month, the Brookings Institution, a U.S. think tank, said the pact “reflects widespread recognition, among even the most sceptical member states, that managing migration effectively is in the common interest”.

Amnesty International criticised Vienna’s stance.

“Instead of facing global challenges on an international level, the government is increasingly isolating Austria. That is irresponsible,” the rights group said in a statement.

Reporting by Francois Murphy; Additional reporting by Riham Alkousaa and Tassilo Hummel in Berlin and Tom Miles in Geneva; editing by Gareth Jones and James Dalgleish

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