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Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz addresses a news conference in Vienna, Austria, May 11, 2016. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

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ZURICH (Reuters) - Migrants who try to enter Europe illegally by boat should be denied the chance to apply for asylum and be sent back, Austria's foreign minister said in a newspaper interview published on Sunday.

Austria's centrist government promised tougher action on immigration after the far right's candidate very nearly won a presidential election two weeks ago on voter concerns about Europe's biggest peacetime migration crisis.

"Whoever boards a boat and tries to enter Europe illegally has ruined his chances of gaining asylum in Europe and will be sent back," Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz told Swiss newspaper NZZ am Sonntag.

Kurz, a member of the conservative OVP party, said Australia had shown it was possible to rescue migrants at sea without automatically letting them into the country.

"There is a country we can learn from. Australia had a similar problem. But the country managed to decide itself who is allowed to come, and didn't leave this decision to people-smugglers," the 29-year-old minister told the newspaper.

Australia is frequently criticised by human rights campaigners for detaining migrants intercepted at sea in camps in Papua New Guinea and Nauru as well as its attempts to resettle refugees in poorer countries such as Cambodia.

Hundreds of people are estimated to have drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean this week as a power vacuum in Libya continues to allow people-smugglers to operate with impunity, taking advantage of waves of desperate people fleeing war and poverty.

Within the European Union, Kurz said the principle of free movement meant EU citizens were migrating to countries with the most generous social welfare systems. He said Austria should follow Britain in seeking ways to treat foreigners differently from its own citizens when it comes to benefit payments.

(Reporting by Silke Koltrowitz; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

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