The number of asylum-seekers continued to fall. Authorities continued to deport rejected asylum-seekers to Afghanistan despite the security situation in the country. Amendments to the law on public assemblies increased the potential for restrictions on the right to peaceful assembly.
Refugees’ and migrants’ rights – forcible return
Between January and August, 17,095 people requested asylum; the number fell by nearly half compared to 32,114 people for the same period in 2016.
In October, Parliament amended the asylum law to automatically add a return order to any decision concerning the revocation of asylum or subsidiary protection status, for example upon conviction for a criminal offence, increasing the risk of refoulement – forcible return of an individual to a country where they would risk serious human rights violations.
The authorities continued to deport rejected asylum-seekers and undocumented migrants to Afghanistan despite the deterioration of the security situation in the country. In the first half of the year, 67 people were forcibly returned there.
In September, the Minister of the Interior announced the non-renewal of the Humanitarian Admission Programme pointing to the large number of asylum cases that were still pending. Since 2013, 1,900 vulnerable refugees had been successfully resettled through the Programme.
During the year, asylum-seekers brought six individual complaints before the UN Human Rights Committee alleging that their return under the Dublin III Regulation (an EU law that establishes the criteria and mechanisms for determining the EU member state responsible for examining an asylum application) to Bulgaria and Italy would violate their human rights. In March the authorities deported a Syrian family to Bulgaria and in June a Somalian woman to Italy, despite the Human Rights Committee requesting Austria to refrain from doing so.
Freedom of assembly
In June, Parliament amended the law on public assemblies, which gave the authorities new vaguely formulated grounds to prohibit public assemblies, including where an assembly is “against a foreign policy interest”. Shortly after, the Minister of the Interior suggested the introduction of further far-reaching amendments to the law, including fines and other administrative measures against organizers not complying with the law, and a cap on the number of public assemblies taking place in shopping streets. There were no steps to further amend the law at the end of the year.
Counter-terror and security
In July, the government tabled an amendment to the Criminal Procedure Code that would introduce several new far-reaching surveillance methods. The amendment gave rise to concern regarding the right to privacy. The methods included software to access data from smartphones and techniques to intercept mobile phone traffic. The authorities would be able to use many of those techniques without seeking prior judicial authorization.
In October, a new law entered into force banning any kind of full-face covering in public spaces. Despite its purpose of “promoting active participation in society”, the law disproportionately restricted the rights to freedom of expression and of religion or belief.
In June, the Austrian National Council rejected a motion that would open a discussion on equal marriage irrespective of sexual orientation and gender identity. Same-sex couples could enter a civil partnership but were not allowed to marry. In December, the Constitutional Court repealed discriminatory passages of the Marriage Act and the Registered Partnership Act. The repeal was to take effect from 1 January 2019, thus enabling same-sex couples to marry and heterosexual couples to enter registered partnerships.