Politics

Austrian ambassador calls for 'joint ideas' on defining migrants, refugees

As Austria prepares to take over the European Union presidency July 1 in the midst of a continent-wide refugee crisis, the country's ambassador to Canada is urging Europe, the United States and Canada to clarify the rules on who counts as a refugee or a migrant.

Austria takes on EU presidency as Europe faces critical moment in migrant crisis

'We need to develop a set of joint ideas on what is refugee status,' says Austria's ambassador to Canada Stefan Pehringer. 9:05

As Austria prepares to take over the European Union presidency on July 1 in the midst of a continent-wide refugee crisis, the country's ambassador to Canada is urging Europe, the United States and Canada to clarify the rules on who counts as a refugee or a migrant.

"What we need to develop is a set of joint ideas on what is refugee status and what is migration," Stefan Pehringer said in an interview with Vassy Kapelos on CBC News Network's Power and Politics

"Who is a refugee and who is a migrant? We're talking about two different statuses. It's perfectly legitimate to want to migrate to another country ... but being a refugee is something else and we do need to make that distinction."

Pehringer, who represents a hard-right coalition government that has taken an aggressive stance on immigration, called on all countries — including Canada and the U.S. — to define refugee status and migrant status "in a stringent way, but also in a humane way."

It's an echo of the message in a new report prepared for the Trudeau government that notes the growing trend of people using the asylum process in Canada instead of regular immigration channels.

The independent review says that Canada must streamline and expedite its refugee claim system. 

Pehringer conceded that deciding who qualifies as a refugee and who is a migrant is a "very delicate question." Citing the recent U.S. immigration crackdown — which produced reams of reports about distraught migrant children taken from their parents — Pehringer called it "very disturbing and heartbreaking to see kids being separated from their families."

"I think the U.S. administration, the president — not unlike other countries — is struggling to define refugee status and migrant status," he added. "And we have to [define] it both in America and in Europe in a stringent way, but also in a humane way."

EU heads into critical migrant summit

European leaders are headed into a key two-day summit on migration in Brussels beginning Thursday. The summit comes as a political crisis is worsening on the continent over migration, with countries such as Italy and Malta refusing to let migrant rescue ships dock in their harbours.

Austria is preparing to push for stricter migration policy in Europe as part of its presidency. According to an Austrian government document obtained by the Financial Times, it's looking into the possibility of creating a new protection system in which asylum seekers would file applications before entering Europe.

Another proposal being considered by the EU would expand upon the idea of creating camps in North Africa to house migrants rescued at sea.

Pehringer said Austria's tough approach to migration policy — led by 31-year-old far-right Chancellor Sebastian Kurz — is necessary following the 2015 surge of migrants to various European countries in 2015.

Austria itself received 150,000 asylum applications in the immediate wake of the crisis, according to Eurostat — approximately 1.7 per cent of the population of 8.7 million.

But the crisis seems to be abating now, with total new arrivals in the Mediterranean well below half of what they were one year ago, says the UN Refugee Agency.

"We have lower numbers coming now, but for a moment which might come where you have more refugees coming in, you have to be ready," Pehringer said.

Pehringer also apologized on behalf of Kurz after the chancellor recently called for "an axis of the willing against illegal migration" between Italy, Germany and Austria.

"He admitted maybe it would have been better to use the term 'alliance' instead of 'axis' because 'axis' might be historically loaded," Pehringer said. "But please do believe me, and do believe the chancellor, that the axis of very bad times in European history was not what the chancellor had in mind. He was talking about an alliance, a union between countries."

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