Austria is making preparations for a 400-metre-long fence and strict controls at a key border crossing to Italy, as authorities expect the daily number of arriving refugees to rise considerably, police said Wednesday.
Regional police chief Helmut Tomac did not give a start date for the controls at the Brenner mountain pass, which have raised concerns in Italy that the measures will hurt freight business along the key North-South transportation route.
The daily Tiroler Tageszeitung reported earlier that police plan to introduce checks at the Brenner in late May or early June, in line with previous comments by Austria's new Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka.
The minister is set to travel to Rome on Thursday to discuss the controversial plans with the Italian government.
Currently, some 50 migrants arrive at the Brenner each day. That figure could rise to 500 in the coming weeks and months, the Tiroler Tageszeitung reported, citing police estimates.
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said the scheme was fundamentally misguided.
"The possibility of closing the Brenner is blatantly against European rules, as well as against history, against logic and against the future," Renzi wrote in an online newsletter.
"Walls are not a solution. We should build bridges in their place," EU Migration Commissioner Dimitri Avramopoulos said during a visit to Sicily.
"Free movement is the biggest achievement of the European Union and I am very determined to defend it and strengthen it, as is all of the [EU] Commission," he warned in an interview with the La Repubblica newspaper.
The Austrian government has argued that the checks at the Brenner are needed in case Italy is unable to prevent rising numbers of migrants from travelling north.
Police chief Tomac said that traffic would have to be slowed down, vehicles would be checked, and trains from Italy would be stopped and searched on the Austrian side.
"Rail traffic will be substantially delayed," Tomac said.
CGIA Mestre, an economic think-tank, said one third of goods that are imported or exported from Italy via truck pass through the Brenner. Together with rail traffic, more than 40 million tonnes per year are hauled over the mountain pass, according to the latest available data from 2013.
Police may also erect a mesh-wire fence on short notice to prevent migrants from colliding with traffic and to guide them to the manned checkpoint, Tomac told dpa.
A decision to raise the fence would depend on whether Italy cooperates on taking back migrants who are rejected by Austrian border police, he explained.
Meanwhile, Austrian legislators were debating an amendment that allows the government to adopt emergency measures if the number of arrivals threatens to overburden Austria's public services.
These measures would include the rejection of all asylum seekers at borders except for those few who have immediate family in Austria or who face inhumane treatment if they are pushed back to another country.
The centrist coalition government drafted the amendments amid growing popular support for the anti-immigration Freedom Party (FPOe).
However, the FPOe has criticized the bill as too lax and has said that it will oppose it.
There have also been a growing number of voices from inside Chancellor Werner Faymann's Social Democratic Party who fear that the emergency measures would undermine efforts to find an EU-wide solution to the refugee crisis.