Austria has deployed armoured vehicles close to its border with Italy and will send up to 750 soldiers to guard the frontier against migrants, the government said on Tuesday.
The move reflects deep concern in Vienna and elsewhere in Europe over the huge number of asylum seekers who continue to cross the Mediterranean from the coast of Libya – so far this year more than 85,000 have been rescued and brought to Italy.
Austria plans to increase border controls at the Brenner Pass, a key trade and transport route through the Alps that connects the two countries.
The 750 soldiers could be rushed to the border within 72 hours if there was a migration emergency, officials said.
“I expect border controls will be introduced very soon,” Peter Doskozil, the defence minister, told the newspaper Kronen Zeitung. His spokesman said there was no concrete timetable for the new controls.
“But we see how the situation in Italy is becoming more acute and we have to be prepared to avoid a situation comparable to summer 2015.”
That was a reference to the crisis two years ago when hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants streamed into Western Europe along the so-called Balkan Route, having crossed the Aegean to Greece from Turkey.
The four military vehicles have been moved to Tyrol province, on the border with Italy. They are armoured but not armed, the spokesman said. “These are not battle tanks. These are armoured vehicles without weapons which could block roads.”
They had been used during the refugee crisis of 2015, when they were deployed at a crossing on Austria’s border with Slovenia.
With France and Switzerland closing their borders to migrants since last year, the tens of thousands in Italy have nowhere to go.
The EU came up with a plan to relocate around 160,000 asylum seekers stuck in Italy and Greece but so far only 12,000 have been resettled.
Italy says it can no longer be expected to deal single-handedly with the vast number of asylum seekers, most of them economic migrants, streaming across the Mediterranean.
Rome is drawing up a long list of proposals that it will present on Thursday at an EU ministerial meeting in Tallinn.
They include more money and training for the Libyan coast guard, so that it can stop boats full of migrants setting out from the coast in the first place; much tighter controls along the Niger-Libya border, one of the main routes for West African migrants trying to reach Europe; and a ban on humanitarian NGOs venturing into Libyan waters to rescue migrant boats.
The Italians have also called for rescued migrants to be sent to ports in France and Spain, but Paris and Madrid both appear to be resistant to the idea. The European Commission is due to present a set of measures to reduce the migrant exodus later on Tuesday.
The Italian government has warned that after years of taking in hundreds of thousands of migrants, the country is now at breaking point.
Paolo Gentiloni, the prime minister, says that unless the problem is resolved, social tensions could increase between Italians and migrants.
On Sunday, petrol bombs were thrown at an empty hotel in the northern city of Brescia that has been earmarked as a hostel for migrants.
“We are asking for the work to be shared,” Mr Gentiloni said on Monday. “This is necessary if … we are to avoid the situation in Italy becoming unsustainable and stoking hostility in a society which until now has responded in an exemplary way, with cohesion.”