Austria will sharply reduce the number of asylum claims it accepts at its southern border to 80 per day, Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner said Wednesday, taking a further step to seal off the country from the Balkan migration route.
In addition, Austria will let in a maximum of 3,200 people per day who are headed for neighbouring Germany, the minister told dpa.
The announcement by Austria, one of Europe's major host countries for refugees, came a day before a much-anticipated EU summit to find a common policy for the refugee crisis among the bloc's members.
"It is reasonable to protect our own borders as long as there is no European solution," Mikl-Leitner said.
Austrian neighbour Slovenia announced on Wednesday it would follow Austria's lead and also limit the amount of refugees crossing its borders. "We will be keeping to the same quotas that Austria has defined," said Interior Minister Vesna Gyorkos Znidar.
The Austrian measure will be implemented starting on Friday and will stay in place for the foreseeable future.
An average of more than 200 people per day have been applying for refugee status in Austria this year.
Austria has announced a series of steps to curb immigration in recent weeks, including increased numbers of deportations and preparations for introducing border controls along its entire border with Slovenia, Italy and Hungary.
Mikl-Leitner said she could not rule out that the new quotas would create congestion in Slovenia.
"It is important that every country along the Balkan route takes more restrictive steps at its border," the conservative politician said.
Balkan countries have already taken notice.
On Wednesday, a UN refugee official confirmed that a large group of migrants was being sent back south along the Balkan route for the first time.
"We have information that 217 people, mostly Afghan families, but also some Syrians and Iraqis, were identified as economic migrants and returned" from Slovenia to Croatia and on to Serbia, a spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency UNHCR in Serbia said.
In addition, Slovenia's top security body told Prime Minister Miro Cerar's cabinet it may authorize the army for limited policing powers at the borders, the STA news agency reported. The Slovenian parliament is expected to debate the proposal next week.
Around 1 million people, including many refugees from Middle Eastern war zones, travelled from Turkey to Greece and through the Balkans in the past 12 months.
Along with Austria, Denmark, Germany, Norway and Sweden have all reintroduced temporary controls to better manage migration surges.
These countries belong to the Schengen area, Europe's free-travel zone that allows people to move through 26 countries without passports or border checks.
The European Union is now assessing whether these restrictions should be allowed to stay in place for another two years, because of enduring border-control deficiencies in Greece. The country has been accused of letting migrants move through largely unchecked.
The EU has given Greece until May to better control its borders, notably the external Schengen frontier with Turkey. But there is mounting scepticism that Athens will manage to comply.
"We will need definitely in Europe more time than until May to address deficiencies on the external border," one EU source predicted on Wednesday, speaking on condition of anonymity.
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