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US suspends resettlement programme for non-Muslim Iranians

Austria is already strained by efforts to accommodate and integrate over 100,000 migrants [Anadolu]

Date of publication: 28 January, 2017

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Hundreds of non-Muslim Iranians will be affected by President Trump's decision to cancel a Congress-backed programme for their resettlement in the US

Austria has shut down a US Congress-backed programme that allowed non-Muslim Iranians to migrate to America.

It follows a clampdown on refugee admissions by President Donald Trump one week into office, with passport holders of seven Muslim-majority countries, including Iran, barred from entering the US.

The 27-year-old Iranian Lautenberg programme was originally approved by Congress to help Jews in the former Soviet Union out of the country.

Austria had been serving as a conduit for Iranian Jews, Christians and Bahai to resettle in the US, due to persecution or restrictions in their home country.

The Bahai religion - founded in 1844 by a Persian nobleman considered a prophet by followers - is banned in Iran with Iranian authorities accused of executing and arresting followers.

Austrian officials told The Associated Press that before the programme was suspended, the US had been interviewing the candidates in Austria because they cannot do so in Iran. It is unclear when the programme might resume.

"US authorities told us that the onward trip for people to the USA, who received visas from Austrian authorities as part of the programme, would be put on hold for now," said Austrian foreign ministry spokesperson Thomas Schnoell.

In an email obtained by AP, the US State Department said the Austrian government had "electronically canceled" its visas for applicants who had not yet reached Austria.

If they try to reach Austria anyway they will be permanently blocked from the country, according to the email.

According to Schnoell, the move would affect nearly 300 Iranians with visas waiting to enter Austria.

About 100 of them have been tracked down and informed that they can no longer enter Austria, he said, as the search continues for the rest through airline ticket bookings and other means.

It was not immediately clear what would happen to the small number of Iranians with short-term visas who were already in Austria.

US authorities told us that the onward trip for people to the USA, who received visas from Austrian authorities as part of the programme, would be put on hold for now.
- Thomas Schnoell

They may have to seek asylum in Austria, a nation of fewer than 9 million people that is already strained by efforts to accommodate and integrate more than 100,000 migrants who have flowed in since 2015.

The end of the programme, named after former Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, could also have broad implications for religious minorities in Iran.

The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society said on its website that ending the US-Austrian partnership "puts people seeking religious freedom in danger and sends the wrong message about the pervasive violations of religious freedom in Iran".

Though not directly linked to an executive order Trump signed on Friday that orders strict new screening for refugees to keep "radical Islamic terrorists" out of the US, the suspension of the Lautenberg programme is part of the effects already occurring from his tougher line on immigration and refugees.

It could lead other nations to take a harder line against refugees wishing to use their territories as transit points.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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