izbjeglice, migranti.jpg
Photograph: HINA/ Ivo LUČIĆ/ ds

The Brenner, a snowy mountain pass between Italy and Austria, is one of the places where the dismantling of Europe's internal borders

The hut that once hosted Austrian border guards is now a shop for traditional Tyrolese clothing, while buildings on the Italian side have been knocked down and replaced by a large car park and shopping centre.

But the Austrian government, under pressure from the far-right opposition and surging asylum applications, said last month that systematic border checks may soon return to enforce a maximum daily entry quota of 80 asylum seekers.

At the Brenner, the sign of things to come has been planted on the ground.

The frontier was recently flagged up by a new red-and-white plaque saying: "Austrian Republic - Border Crossing Point." Below it are another two signs, one saying "STOP" and another "Border Control." They can be covered or uncovered as required.

Mayor Franz Kompatscher, who administers the town on the Italian side of the border, says the Brenner needs to be safeguarded as a symbol of free movement in Europe. "If this symbol dies, then it means that Europe also dies," he tells dpa.

The vast majority of freight traffic between Italy and the rest of Europe passes through this small outpost - home to only 250 people - either via the motorway or via the railway line that goes on to Innsbruck, Austria, and Munich, Germany.

Subjecting that traffic to tighter controls would be "absurd" and a "reversal of 30 years of European integration," local entrepreneur and head of Italian road hauliers' association Anita, Thomas Baumgartner, said last month.

Having truckers queueing at borders would extend delivery times, increase costs for industry and consumers, and restrict the time drivers actually spend on the road, forcing a rethink of EU rules regulating them, Baumgartner complained.

Border crossings have been free since April 1, 1998, when Italy and Austria completed their entry into Europe's passport-free Schengen area, partly healing the historic wound of the post-World War I Italian annexation of German-speaking South Tyrol.

"That day was a day of celebration for us, because it was a victory for European free movement, but also because it marked a rapprochement between South and North Tyrol, which were separated after 1918," Kompatscher says.

Monika Weissensteiner, a volunteer for the Alexander Langer Foundation who has been monitoring migration flows at the Brenner Pass since September 2014, says Austrian moves are "understandable," but misguided.

"Refugees are not the problem, the problem is the European response," she tells dpa.

Migrants know that European countries want to shut them out, "but it does not mean that people will stop travelling and stay home, as most of them are fleeing from unsustainable situations," Weissensteiner says.

"This European response is only making their journeys harder, longer, more dangerous and more expensive, and opening up opportunities for human traffickers," she adds. "We could avoid all of this with resettlement programmes" from North Africa or the Middle East.

Refugee flows through the Brenner have ebbed since 2015, as Greece replaced Italy as the main entry point into Europe. But the trend may reverse as a series of border closures along the Balkan route may push migrants to cross over from Greece to southern Italy.

In recent weeks, there seems to have been only a few dozen daily crossings, Weissensteiner says. German, Austrian and Italian police jointly patrol trains to Austria, trying to catch migrants several stops before they reach the Brenner, to avoid bottlenecks there.

The activist adds that there are now more migrants going from Austria to Italy than vice versa, as people who are denied asylum or entry in northern Europe try their luck further south. Since January 1, hundreds have been returned to Austria by Italian guards, she adds.

"There is a bit of a ping-pong," mayor Kompatscher confirms.

Dpa met a couple of asylum seekers at the train station.

One, a young man from Benin who did not give his name, jumped on a north-bound train and locked himself in the toilet hoping to elude patrols. The other, 25-year-old Ibrahim from Niger, said he returned to Italy after being expelled from Germany.

Given how much harder things have become for people like him, he says others should not follow in his footsteps: "I have a brother in Libya now, he asked me if he could come to Europe. I told him 'no, no, it is really too difficult, you need to stay there, don't come.'"

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