Vienna Journal: An Immigrant Girl’s Plea Draws Austria’s Attention
By MARK LANDLER
October 17, 2007
VIENNA, Oct. 16 — Arigona Zogaj returned to her school in an Austrian village on Tuesday morning, hugging classmates, accepting flowers, and ending — if only for the moment — what has become a singular act of resistance against the authorities of her adopted land.
Late last month, Ms. Zogaj, a 15-year-old ethnic Albanian from Kosovo, went into hiding after the police came for her family, which has been living in Austria and seeking asylum since 2002.
After her father and four siblings were deported to Kosovo, Ms. Zogaj recorded a video, broadcast on Austrian TV, in which she threatened to kill herself if her family was kept apart. Her mother, who had remained here to search for her daughter, suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized.
The saga of Arigona — everyone here calls her by her first name — has riveted this country, raising fraught questions about asylum seekers in a Europe no longer shadowed by war, and about the human cost of Austria’s immigration policies, which are among the most restrictive in Europe.
“This girl speaks with a pure Upper Austrian dialect,” said Alexander Van der Bellen, the leader of the Green Party, which has taken up Ms. Zogaj’s cause. “These people are like native, inbred, aboriginal Austrians, and yet they are deported to Kosovo. Many people can’t accept that.”
It is not that simple, of course — as it never is, when Western Europeans confront minorities in their midst.
Ms. Zogaj’s desperate flight has evoked genuine sympathy here. A crowd of 5,000 marched on the Interior Ministry to protest its hard line against her family. Austria’s largest paper, Kronen Zeitung, which champions strict immigration policies, said she should be allowed to stay.
It does not hurt that Ms. Zogaj is a winsome young woman whose anguish was as authentic as her accent.
Yet by all accounts, most Austrians still want to keep out foreigners, whether or not they are asking for asylum. Austria’s tough laws are supported by both the center-right People’s Party and center-left Social Democrats, which govern together in a coalition.
“There is a real schizophrenia in Austria,” said Hans Rauscher, a columnist at the newspaper Der Standard. “A majority of Austrians say, ‘We can’t send poor Arigona away from her family.’ But a majority also says, ‘We can’t let in more people like her family.’”
Even the claim made by her supporters — that Ms. Zogaj was happily integrated in her home village of Frankenburg — goes too far for some Austrians. Residents did rally in support of the family. But after a Catholic priest in a neighboring village, Josef Friedl, took Ms. Zogaj, who is Muslim, under his care, vandals sprayed the words Mullah Friedl on a graveyard wall.
“Obviously, Arigona speaks very good German, but that’s not the case with the other members of her family,” said Günther Platter, the interior minister, who met with her in recent days and told her she did not have to fear deportation.
Mr. Platter, a conservative who used to be a small-town mayor in Tyrol, has taken a pasting in the news media for his handling of the case. He has refused to allow Ms. Zogaj’s father or siblings to return to Austria, pending a ruling on the family’s case by the Austrian Constitutional Court, which is not expected before December.
Speaking over coffee, he is unbowed. “As interior minister, I can’t allow myself to be blackmailed by the media,” Mr. Platter said. “We must fight against the misuse of asylum.”
Ms. Zogaj’s father, he said, settled here in 2001, two years after the end of the war in Kosovo. Even after his initial application for asylum was denied, he arranged for his family to join him. The family then applied for asylum several more times, and was denied repeatedly.
One of Ms. Zogaj’s older brothers, Mr. Platter said, had a run-in with the law, though he said he did not have details.
Austria has granted asylum to thousands of refugees from the war-torn Balkans since the 1990s. In this case, Mr. Platter said, the government consulted United Nations officials who administer Kosovo, and was told there was no reason not to repatriate the Zogaj family. The fact that they would have less economic opportunity in Kosovo was not grounds for asylum, Mr. Platter said.
The problem, critics say, lies with Austria’s asylum system, which has a backlog of more than 30,000 applications. Foreigners can live here for a decade or more before being told that they have to leave. At a protest on Tuesday, students wore placards with the names of other families facing expulsion.
Austria has so many asylum seekers, experts say, largely because it is so difficult to get in any other way. In a European Union-backed study of migration trends released Monday, Austria ranks near the bottom of 25 European countries in its openness to migrants.
A new law, adopted in 2006, raises the hurdles to reuniting immigrants with their family members and makes it harder to gain citizenship. Defenders say the measures are needed in a country in which more than 13 percent of the population is foreign-born and nearly 10 percent hold foreign passports.
Critics say the policy reflects Austria’s refusal to accept that it is an immigration country, whether the immigrants are the young Czech women who work as nurses today, or the Czech refugees of a century ago.
The government has begun a thorough examination of its integration policies, but Bernhard Perchinig, a senior researcher at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, said, “It’s not possible to completely close a country and have, at the same time, a good integration policy.”
In this regard, Arigona Zogaj, with her Austrian-flavored German, may have done this country a service.
“Cynics say this girl should be given Austrian citizenship just for showing Austrians how confused they are about immigration,” said Michael Fleischhacker, the editor in chief of the paper Die Presse.
mercredi, octobre 17, 2007
I can't say as I blame the Zogajs for escaping their war-torn homeland and building a better life elsewhere.