Ban Ki-moon United nations.jpg
Photograph: EPA/JUSTIN LANE

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon denounced Thursday the spread of xenophobia and anti-migration policies in Europe while on a visit to Austria, one day after that country introduced tougher asylum laws.

In a speech in the Austrian parliament, Ban applauded Austria and other European countries for the generosity that they had shown so far towards refugees.

"But I am concerned that European countries are now adopting increasingly restrictive immigration and refugee policies," he said.

"We have a moral and political obligation to help those who are fleeing wars, human rights violations and persecution," Ban said.

He added that he was "alarmed about growing xenophobia" in and outside of Austria.

Ban addressed the parliament one day after legislators adopted a stricter asylum law and Austrian police said it would put up a fence and introduce strict controls at the Brenner Pass on its border with Italy to limit the number of migrants and refugees entering the country.

Currently, Austrian authorities detect around 50 daily migrant crossings at the Brenner, but they expect a 10-fold increase in the coming weeks and months, the Tiroler Tageszeitung reported Wednesday, citing police estimates.

The law approved Wednesday will allow the government to reject nearly all asylum seekers at the borders if it finds that public order and security are endangered by the number of arrivals. In addition, it makes it harder for refugees to bring family to Austria.

Austria received 90,000 asylum seekers last year, and about 18,000 since the start of 2016. Its centrist government is closing the door to new arrivals as it faces pressure from record public support for the opposition far-right Freedom Party (FPOe).

FPOe candidate Norbert Hofer won the first round of presidential elections on Sunday.

In Brussels, a European Commission spokeswoman expressed "grave concern" about Austrian moves and said the head of the European Union's executive, Jean-Claude Juncker, would be in Rome on May 5 to discuss the Brenner row with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.

Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano was expected to raise the same topic in Thursday talks in the Italian capital with Austrian counterpart Wolfgang Sobotka. Ahead of the talks, he said Vienna's plans defied "logic, history and common sense."

Reinhold Messner, a famous mountain climber from Italy's German-speaking province of South Tyrol, said to the La Repubblica newspaper that stopping free travel between Austria and Italy would damage tourism, business and feel like "a jump back in time."

Last year, most Europe-bound migrants passed through the so-called Balkan route, connecting Turkey to Germany and further north, via Austria. Since transit countries on this path have one by one closed their borders, there have been concerns that the flow of people could be rerouted to Italy.

In latest operations off Sicily, 599 migrants were rescued by Italian, Spanish and German navy vessels, the Italian coastguard said in a statement. But the January-April tally of migrant landings is stable in 2016 compared to the previous year, standing below 28,000.

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