Austrian Deportations Stir Asylum Debate

Austrian Deportations Stir Asylum Debate

Saturday October 6, 2007 2:01 PM
Associated Press Writer

VIENNA, Austria (AP) – In the video, 15-year-old Arigona Zogaj's voice broke as she threatened to kill herself unless her family was reunited in Austria.

Her father and four siblings were deported to Kosovo late last month after years of living in Austria. But Arigona, who has managed to elude authorities, said the only person she knew in Kosovo was her grandmother, and that her prospects for the future there were slim.

“I just want us to be able to continue to live here,'' she said in German while sitting against a white wall in an undisclosed location. The video was given to Austrian broadcaster ORF and surfaced Friday.

The Zogaj family's story has fanned a fiery debate in Austria about deporting well-integrated foreigners who seek asylum and often try to stay on illegally when their applications are rejected. It is a debate similar to those in other European countries, where conflicts about immigration are often tied to questions of national identity and humanitarianism.

In Austria, the crux of the issue is an immigration law that took effect in January 2006 and, among other things, sets stricter guidelines on qualifying for residency. While proponents claim it has helped reduce the number of applications for asylum and slowed immigration, opponents say it causes inhumane hardship by uprooting people who, in some cases, have lived in Austria for years.

Arigona's father, for instance, came to Austria in 2001; his wife and children joined him the following year. The family lived in Frankenburg, Upper Austria. The mother was allowed to stay in Austria when Arigona disappeared and, according to media reports, has been hospitalized with a nervous breakdown.

On Wednesday, Austria's parliament meets for a special session to debate the general issue of deportations at the request of the Greens, the only party that did not back the law in 2005.

Another case that has grabbed the public's attention has been that of the Milicis – a family from Kosovo with six young children. The Milicis lived in Austria since 2005, but authorities rejected their asylum application and a further request to stay on humanitarian grounds.

When they didn't go voluntarily, police arrived unannounced at the family's front door early one morning late last month. On Tuesday, they were put on a flight back to the Balkans.

Residents of Peggau, the southern Austrian village the Milicis had called home, had petitioned for them to stay. Appeals to Interior Minister Guenther Platter and other top officials in their favor by Peggau Mayor Werner Rois and Styria Governor Franz Voves also were ignored.

“It's so disappointing – the family was fully integrated and the children were so smart and well-behaved,'' Rois said. “I don't understand it.''

Platter, a conservative, maintains that while Austria provides asylum to foreigners who are truly in need of protection, it must say no when there is no adequate proof of persecution.

“A politician can't fall over every time the wind blows,'' Platter told Austrian radio.

Some asylum cases are complicated by other factors. In the case of the Zogaj family, authorities have also alluded to one of the sons as having had a run-in with the law.

On Friday, the Austrian People's Party rallied behind Platter on the issue, with Vice-Chancellor Wilhelm Molterer saying integration meant adjusting oneself to the obligations and laws of the country.

“Our legal and value system has to be respected,'' Molterer was quoted as saying by the Austria Press Agency.

Other European countries are grappling with the same problem.

In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy has taken a hard stance, and the country is racing to meet a target of deporting 25,000 illegal immigrants by the end of the year. But the moves are causing tension, especially after some people have been hurt trying to elude authorities.

In the Netherlands, the first act of the new parliament elected in November 2006 was to halt deportations set in motion by the previous government. Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende's new government declared an amnesty for up to 30,000 people. New asylum seekers and illegal immigrants still face a tough regime, kept in camps while their cases are handled. Even legal immigrants must pass language tests before coming and take citizenship classes in order to remain.

Austria's Interior Ministry claims that the number of people deported has declined since the immigration law took effect. While 4,090 deportations were carried out last year, 1,535 people were expelled from the country in the first half of 2007, it said.

The recent deportations also have called attention to the fact that it often takes years for asylum applications to be processed. At the end of August, decisions related to 33,943 cases were outstanding, Interior Ministry statistics show.

In a recent TV interview, Platter acknowledged the backlog was a problem and has proposed the creation of a special tribunal to deal with asylum applications. He has also said he wants applications to be dealt with within a year.

“This situation doesn't leave me cold,'' Platter said.