Riot police face protesters during an April rally against the Austrian government’s planned reintroduction of border controls at the Brenner Pass on the border of Austria and Italy
Since the days of ancient Rome, conquering armies have traversed the Brenner Pass, a scenic gorge in the Alps connecting the boot of Italy to the heart of Europe. Now, nations to the north fear that this vital passage will become the funnel for a new “invasion” of the Muslim migrant invasion.
A thousand miles away in Greece, the main migrant route into Europe is shutting down amid stricter border controls in the Balkans and a deal with Turkey to stop new arrivals from the Middle East, Africa and beyond. Yet as one door closes, concern is mounting in a host of countries that the poor and desperate may find another way in.
‘Stop Invasion!’ Thousands protest at anti-immigration rally in Italy
Thousands of people took to the streets of Milan as anti-immigration demonstrators from the right-wing Lega Nord party were confronted by an anti-racism rally.
Claiming that as many as 1 million more migrants are massing in Libya with the aim of crossing into Europe through Italy, the Austrians, for instance, are laying the groundwork for an emergency fence between the jagged Alpine peaks at its Italian border. To stop the feared hordes, the Swiss are threatening to call out the army (yes, Switzerland has an army). The Germans and the French, meanwhile, are joining an effort to extend “crisis” checks already in place at various European Union borders despite early signs that the region’s migrant flows may be coming under control.
Some Austrian politicians are backing a possible fence at the Brenner Pass despite their historic ties to Alto Adige, a still largely German-speaking enclave in Italy ceded by Vienna in the early 20th century. At local restaurants, schnitzel competes with pizza on menus, and families of Grubers and Hubers outnumber Rossis and Bianchis.
But if a fence can hold back migrants, some Austrian politicians say, then a fence there should be.
“We can’t be the social security for Africa,” said Rudi Federspiel, a regional leader in the right-wing Freedom Party of Austria from the bordering province of Tirol. “Most of these people are Muslims, not Roman Catholics.”
Those migrants already in Austria, he insisted, are causing serious social problems: “We have rapes. Rapes in the city. Rapes all over the place. Because Muslim men don’t accept women. . . . They are not on the same level” as Europeans.
In 2014 — before migrants started choosing the easier route via Greece — Italy was the ground zero of Europe’s migrant crisis. Already, hundreds of migrants per week — most of them sub-Saharan Africans who first arrived at ports in Italy’s south — are again seeking to venture north through this majestic valley.
So far, overall arrivals to Italy — about 28,600 since Jan. 1 — are roughly on par with 2015, and are not yet near the huge numbers seen in Greece at the peak of the crisis last year. Nevertheless, they are provoking what Italy calls a disproportionate, even hysterical, response from its neighbors. This week, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi suggested that the ugly tone of the fence debate with Austria in particular risked digging up dark chapters in European history marred by divisions and bigotry.
Last month, Austria passed a law allowing mass rejections of asylum requests in the event of a huge new wave of migrants. A gang of right-wing youths recently stormed the prestigious Burgtheater in Vienna, spilling fake blood onstage and interrupting a play about xenophobia. In March, a pub in the southern Austrian town of Althofen banned all refugees, posting an open letter to them saying that other patrons “don’t feel comfortable when you are in the bar.”
The Austrian police have started random checks and have broken ground on a patrol station, where blanket inspections could rapidly be introduced along one of Europe’s busiest corridors for commerce.
The Italians have refused Austrian requests to board trains heading north to stage migrant hunts. Austrian police, meanwhile, have deployed tear gas against Italian protesters resisting the border action in recent weeks. On Saturday, hundreds of demonstrators again mobilized against the Austrian plans, some hurling smoke bombs and stones at Italian riot police. Italian business owners and politicians are warning that large-scale checks could cost the regional economy up to $3.45 billion a year in shipping delays.
If a massive wave of Muslim migrants does come, local politicians say they will be distributed to communities across the region rather than housed in one big camp if they cannot cross the border. But some in this quaint community of gingerbread-house-like villages and Alpine ski resorts are fretting that their clean, quiet streets may turn into a “new Idomeni” — a reference to the squalid refugee camps on Greece’s sealed border with Macedonia.
“The population is scared because they see all the footage from Greece . . . and fear this might happen here, too,” said Elmar Morandell, transport chief for the region’s Association of Trades and Services. source