Austria says it won't sign UN global migration pact over sovereignty fears

Austria will follow the United States and Hungary in backing out of a UN migration pact over concerns it will blur the line between legal and illegal migration, the Austrian government said on Wednesday.

U.S., Hungary have already backed out

Austrian Vice-Chancelllor Heinz-Christian Strache, left, and Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, seen here at a cabinet meeting in Vienna, are concerned the United Nations migration pact poses 'a danger to our national sovereignty.' (Leonhard Foeger/Reuters)

Austria will follow the United States and Hungary in backing out of a UN migration pact over concerns it will blur the line between legal and illegal migration, the Austrian government said on Wednesday.

Conservative Chancellor Sebastian Kurz took office last December in a coalition with the nationalist, anti-migration Freedom Party. Austria currently holds the European Union's rotating presidency, and Kurz has made curbing unregulated migration a priority. 

The Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, which won't be legally binding, was finalized under UN auspices in July. It is due to be formally approved at a December meeting in Marrakech, Morocco.

Kurz and Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache said Austria won't sign the document or send an official representative to Marrakech. They cited, among other things, fears about a possible watering-down of the distinction between legal and illegal migration.

"There are some points that we view critically and where we fear a danger to our national sovereignty," Kurz said.

"Some of the contents go diametrically against our position," added Strache, the Freedom Party's leader. 

"Migration is not and cannot become a human right. It cannot be that someone receives a right to migration because of the climate or poverty."

Pact 'inconsistent with U.S. policy'

Austria took in roughly one per cent of its population in asylum seekers in 2015 during a migration crisis in which more
than a million people travelled to Europe, many of them fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere.

That experience dominated last year's parliamentary election and helped propel Kurz's conservatives to power. He has said he will prevent any repeat of that influx and has implemented policies that include restricting benefits for new immigrants. 

In September 2016, all 193 UN member states, including the United States under former president Barack Obama, adopted a declaration saying no country can manage international migration on its own, and agreed to launch a process leading to the adoption of a global compact in 2018. 

More than 100 Tunisian migrants died over one weekend in June when an overloaded boat capsized en route to Europe. (Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters)

But last December, the U.S. said it was ending its participation in negotiations on the compact, stating that numerous provisions were "inconsistent with U.S. immigration and refugee policies" under President Donald Trump. 

In July, Hungary said it would withdraw from the process.

Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said then that the pact was contrary to his country's interests because while it had some positive aims, like fighting human trafficking, overall it considered migration an unstoppable and positive phenomenon worthy of support.

Poland, which has also clashed with Brussels by resisting national quotas for asylum seekers, has said it is considering the same step.

The non-binding UN pact addresses issues such as how to protect people who migrate, how to integrate them into new countries and how to return them to their home countries. The United Nations has hailed it as a historic and comprehensive pact that could serve as a basis for future policies.

Austria's interior minister, Herbert Kickl, denounced what he called "an almost irresponsibly naive pro-migration tone."

Kickl contended that "it is simply not clear whether this pact, if we were to join it, would not at some point or somehow influence our body of law, even by the back door." 

Austria's opposition criticized the decision. 

In Brussels, Natasha Bertaud, a spokesperson for the EU's executive commission, said it regrets Austria's decision and is seeking more details from Vienna. 

"We continue to believe that migration is a global challenge where only global solutions and global responsibility sharing will bring results," she said at a regular briefing. 

EU heavyweight Germany reaffirmed its support for the pact, which foreign ministry spokesperson Rainer Breul said is "necessary and important."

With files from Reuters