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AUSTRIA STEPS UP BORDER SECURITY

Roving eyes in the sky

In an effort to more effectively cut down on illegal immigrants crossing into their country, Austrian border authorities have increased both personnel and equipment patrolling the country's 115.3-kilometer border with Slovakia, a move Slovak officials are taking in stride.
Major Herpert Brandstatteir of the Austrian border police force said the project is being funded entirely by Austria, as this recently-admitted European Union (EU) country actively attempts to join the so-called Schengen border club, a group of EU countries that are relaxing the borders among themselves but are stepping up security with those countries that are not in the group. Responding to pressure from the seven members in the group - especially Germany - that illegal immigrants from all over are finding their way through post-communist countries and then Austria to western Europe, the Austrians have introduced stringent control mechanisms.


Keep out. Austria is patrolling its border with Slovakia more vigilantly for illegal aliens.
Richard Lewis

In an effort to more effectively cut down on illegal immigrants crossing into their country, Austrian border authorities have increased both personnel and equipment patrolling the country's 115.3-kilometer border with Slovakia, a move Slovak officials are taking in stride.

Major Herpert Brandstatteir of the Austrian border police force said the project is being funded entirely by Austria, as this recently-admitted European Union (EU) country actively attempts to join the so-called Schengen border club, a group of EU countries that are relaxing the borders among themselves but are stepping up security with those countries that are not in the group.

Responding to pressure from the seven members in the group - especially Germany - that illegal immigrants from all over are finding their way through post-communist countries and then Austria to western Europe, the Austrians have introduced stringent control mechanisms. "We [Austria] are the first and last border control of the Schengen states in this area," Brandstatteir said. "Consequently, we are introducing a computer system that will check people coming from non-EU countries for all other EU nations."

Compared to other post-communist countries that have criticized the new policies, Slovak officials are taking the moves as Austria's sovereign right. "Every state has the right to protect its borders," said the director of the Borders and Alien Police, Pavol Ňuňuk. "If they want to do it, it's fine with me."

Eyes in the sky

The stepped-up security along the Slovak line will include an increase in customs and border officials from the current 3,000 to about 5,300 over the next two to three years, with a similar percentage increase in the number of border stations, Brandstatteir said. It will also mean the introduction of "carbon dioxide sounders," which are antenna-like devices that can detect the presence of a person in the trunk of a car.

Perhaps most visible, though, will be the fleet of helicopters the Austrians will dispatch to patrol the border for eight hours a day. This helicopter surveillance - also geared for the Czech Republic - has been used on the Hungarian border for six years, Brandstatteir said. The Austrian fleet of helicopters, models OH-58 and AB-206, will soon number more than 60. Four of them will be equipped with infra-red devices to spot illegal immigrants crossing both "blue" (water) and "green" (land) at night.

The rise in personnel and devices will cost 1.3 billion schillings ($130 million, or 4 billion Sk) this year, Austrian Interior Ministry officials said.

Reactions

Austrian border measures vis á vis other post-Communist countries such as the Czech Republic and Hungary have brought frustration. "The Schengen agreement actually leaves the Czech people out in the cold and makes us feel like second-class citizens," Prague's Mayor Ján Koukal told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Slovak city officials don't feel that way. "Slovaks should know that this is not a measure taken against them," said Milan Vajda, spokesman for Bratislava Mayor Peter Kresánek. "But I'm sure that they will complain."

The illegal immigrants hail mostly from the former countries of Yugoslavia, Iraq, Romania and Bulgaria, and some from as far away as India, China or North Korea, Brandstatteir said. About 95 percent are headed for Germany via Austria through Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia or Slovakia, he added.

Responding to criticism that the stepped-up controls will snarl already heavy traffic at the border, Brandstatteir said plans are underway to double the number of lanes for processing travellers at the Slovak border crossing at Petržalka-Berg.

Special reporting by Andrea Lörinczová

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