The United Nations’ new human rights chief on Monday announced plans to send teams to Italy and Austria to examine the treatment of migrants, drawing a quick retort from Rome and Vienna after her first big appearance in the job.
Both governments take a hard line on migration. The rebuttals from two key European Union states — Austria now holds the rotating EU presidency — suggested Michelle Bachelet is already ruffling governmental feathers after becoming high commissioner for human rights on Sept. 1.
A former Chilean president who was once a political detainee, Bachelet said that "prioritizing the return of migrants from Europe, without ensuring that key international human rights obligations are upheld, cannot be considered a protection response."
Bachelet said her office expects to dispatch a team to Austria to "assess recent developments in this area" and also send staff to Italy to "assess the reported sharp increase in acts of violence and racism against migrants, persons of African descent and Roma."
She also expressed disappointment in the recent anti-migrant clashes in Germany.
“The shocking recent outbreak in Germany of anti-migrant violence, which appears to have been stoked by xenophobic hate speech, is worrying.”
In a written statement to the U.N. Human Rights Council, she didn't specify when either team would travel to Austria and Italy or give their itineraries. The statement, posted on her office's website, also called on the European Union to set up a dedicated search-and-rescue operation for people crossing the Mediterranean Sea. She didn't expand on the plans for sending the teams to Austria and Italy in shorter remarks to the council in Geneva.
On Facebook, Italian Foreign Minister Matteo Salvini insisted that his country has been largely forced to manage an influx of refugees and migrants to Europe on its own and suggested — like Austria's leader — that the United Nations should focus its attention elsewhere.
"Before carrying out checks on Italy, the U.N. should investigate its own member states that ignore basic rights such as freedom and parity between men and women," he wrote.
"Italy in the last years has accepted 700,000 immigrants, many of them clandestine, and has never received the collaboration of other European countries," he added. "We therefore do not accept lessons from anyone, let alone from the U.N."
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said that he welcomed Bachelet's announcement as offering an "opportunity to rectify prejudices and deliberate false information about Austria," the Austria Press Agency reported.
Kurz said in a statement that "living conditions for migrants" in Austria are among the best in the world and added that Austria had taken in some of the highest numbers of migrants per capita in Europe.
"We hope that, after this examination, the U.N. will again have time and resources to dedicate to those countries where torture and the death penalty are on the agenda and the freedom of opinion, the press, assembly and religion are trampled on," Kurz said.