United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1998 - Austria, 1 January 1998, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6a8bd0.html [accessed 4 December 2016]
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At the end of 1997, Austria hosted more than 11,400 refugees and asylum seekers in need of protection. These included 639 persons granted asylum during the year, 2,512 applicants pending a decision, and an estimated 8,300 Bosnian refugees still in need of a durable solution. Asylum seekers filed 6,719 applications in Austria during 1997, a slight decrease from the 6,991 in 1996. But they represent a substantial decrease from the 16,238 entering Austria in 1992, the year a restrictive asylum law entered into force. During 1997, the largest numbers of asylum seekers came from Iraq (22 percent), followed by the present Yugoslavia (16 percent). Significant numbers also came from Afghanistan, Turkey, and Iran. Of the 7,925 persons whose cases were adjudicated during 1997, some 639 individuals, or 8 percent of the total, were granted asylum. The cases of 7,286 persons (92 percent) were denied asylum. Another 438 persons withdrew their applications during the year. Bosnians received the highest approval rate for 1997 (18 percent), followed by Iranians (12 percent), Afghans (8 percent), and Albanians (8 percent). Nationals of Iraq and the present Yugoslavia had approval rates of 7 percent during the year. Asylum Procedure Austria amended its asylum and aliens laws in June 1997 in response to mounting criticism for its treatment of refugees and asylum seekers and the need for domestic legislation to implement the Schengen and Dublin Conventions. The amendments, effective on January 1, 1998, drew a mixed reaction from NGOs and UNHCR in Austria. Refugee advocates welcomed some of the legal changes, but viewed others as little improvement, or even a deterioration, from Austria's 1991 asylum law (effective in 1992), which received wide criticism for failing to meet international standards of refugee protection. Like the old law, the 1997 asylum amendment maintains that only applicants arriving directly from the country of persecution are eligible for asylum in Austria. Applicants arriving from safe third countries (countries the asylum seeker transited where he or she could request and receive protection, according to Austria) are not admissible to the asylum procedure. Although Austria claims to gauge the safety of returning asylum seekers to third countries individually, in practice it has viewed all of its neighbors to be safe third countries and has interpreted the direct travel requirement to preclude from consideration asylum seekers traveling overland to Austria (in practice, some 90 percent of all asylum-seeker arrivals), even if their travel from the country of persecution was uninterrupted. Unlike the old law, however, the 1997 asylum amendment states that "direct" travel is to be interpreted in conformity with Article 31 of the UN Refugee Convention. Commenting on a draft version of the law, UNHCRwhich interprets the UN Refugee Convention to include under the definition of direct travel asylum seekers who have merely transited through other countriesguardedly welcomed what appeared a liberalization of the direct travel requirement. How Austria would interpret and implement the law, however, remained unclear, UNHCR pointed out. The 1997 amendment also changed the wording of the safe third country law, which, critics argued, led to poor decision-making. Under the old law, the authorities only reviewed whether asylum seekers were safe at the time they were transiting third countries. By focusing exclusively on past conditions, UNHCR and NGOs argued, authorities avoided relevant questions about whether the third country would admit asylum seekers to the asylum procedure and protect them. In contrast, the new legislation focuses on present and future conditions of safety in the third country. During a USCR site visit to Austria in 1996, refugee advocates expressed hope that the change, then under discussion, would require the authorities to examine an asylum seeker's actual prospects for filing an asylum application and for securing protection in the third country. Given Austria's poor record in assessing safety conditions in third countries, some question whether a simple rephrasing of the safe third country law will suffice. Austria has considered such countries as Romania, Ukraine, Russia, Turkey, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Congo-Brazzaville, Tajikistan, Ghana, northern Iraq (considered an internal flight alternative for all Iraqis), Niger, and Jordan as safe for the return of asylum seekers without a merits hearing. The new legislation also establishes an accelerated procedure for safe third country and manifestly unfounded applications. Arrival from a safe country of origin (where conditions render the threat of persecution highly unlikely) is grounds for considering an application as manifestly unfounded. Applicants deemed inadmissible on safe third country grounds or because another member state of the European Union (EU) is responsible for reviewing the application (under the Dublin Convention), and applicants whose cases are rejected as manifestly unfounded, have 48 hours to file an appeal. UNHCR and Asylkoordination, an Austrian NGO, among others, expressed their strong concern that the accelerated appeals procedure would not give applicants adequate due process. The 1997 law does not provide that applicants will have access to legal assistance or a full translation of the rejected asylum application. Yet the applicant is expected to prepare an appeal within 48 hours, both UNHCR and Asylkoordination pointed out. However, the 1997 asylum amendment does improve refugee protection in several other areas, according to Asylkoordination. It establishes an independent federal board of asylum appeals that may review evidence not raised in the first-instance status determinations of the Federal Asylum Office. A new airport procedure requires the authorities to obtain UNHCR's consent before deporting asylum seekers arriving by air. The new asylum legislation's impact on provisional residence rights for applicants during the asylum procedure was mixed, according to Asylkoordination. Previously, authorities denied provisional residence permits to claimants whose travel to Austria was determined to be indirectin practice, 60 to 70 percent of all asylum seekers. Although the 1997 asylum amendment provides that all asylum applicants in the normal procedureincluding those who entered Austria illegallywill receive provisional residency rights, asylum seekers with a provisional residence permit still may be detained during the asylum procedure to ensure their deportation if denied asylum. Asylum seekers in the accelerated procedure do not have provisional residency rights. Dublin and Schengen On October 1, 1997, Austria began implementing the Dublin Convention, an EU agreement that establishes a mechanism for determining the member state responsible for adjudicating an asylum request. Generally, Dublin holds that the EU country that permits an asylum seeker entry, or the first EU country of arrival in the event of illegal entry, is responsible for examining the asylum request. Similar to safe third country applicants, asylum seekers arriving from other EU member states are considered inadmissible to Austria's asylum procedure and sent back to those countries. During 1997, Austria also began to implement parts of the Schengen Convention, a multilateral accord paving the way for eliminating border controls between participating member states. To fulfill Schengen's requirements, Austria sharply increased surveillance of its external borders with the Czech and Slovak Republics, Hungary, and Slovenia to prevent unauthorized migrants, including asylum seekers, from entering the country. Austria was expected to fully implement the Schengen Convention by April 1, 1998. The Schengen Convention also establishes a system of common visas and data exchange on asylum seekers and other foreigners. Readmission Agreements Austria has signed readmission agreements with Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Slovenia, and the Slovak Republic. These agreements do not refer to asylum seekers and refugees, but to foreigners in general. Austria also has signed a bilateral protocol with Romania that applies solely to the return of nationals of both states. Bosnians At the end of 1997, about 8,300 Bosnians with temporary protection remained in Austria. An additional 65,000 Bosnians held residence permits as guest workers. Since the Dayton peace accords, about 15,000 Bosnians who had received temporary protection in Austria have repatriated, an estimated 8,000 in 1997. Another 3,000 have resettled in third countries. Austria forcibly repatriated 90 Bosnians in 1997. In July 1997, the Austrian government extended temporary protection for certain categories of Bosnian refugees until July 31, 1998. Bosnians originating from areas where they would be in the ethnic minority, ethnically mixed couples, elderly people without means of support, orphans, seriously ill or traumatized people, war crimes tribunal witnesses, and students finishing a course of study could remain in Austria. Bosnians with temporary protection not falling into these categories were required to leave Austria by August 31, 1997. Those who did so voluntarily received financial assistance. In a November 5, 1997 letter to USCR, the Austrian government reported that it would repatriate only Bosnians with prospects for safe return, based on a careful interview and an assessment of security in the refugee's former home area. Ironically, an Austrian government inquiry into the potential return of several Muslim and Croat families to the Bosnian Croat-controlled town of Jajce resulted in violence, according to a September 1997 report of the UN International Police Task Force in Bosnia. An Austrian government fax announcing its intention to return the families and requesting security for them was among the factors that touched off violent mob evictions in Jajce of hundreds of returnees from their homes during the first three days of August, the UN International Police Task Force report said. In response to a USCR letter urging the Austrian government to reassess its Bosnian repatriation policy in light of the Jajce incident, the Austrian government categorically rejected any connection between its communications with the Jajce authorities and the mob violence.