The case of Arigona Zogaj

How the case of a 15-year-old Kosovan girl facing deportation from Austria caused a national outcry

A few days ago Arigona Zogaj celebrated her return to school in the Austrian village of Frankenburg, ending — at least for the time being — what the New York Times has called "a singular act of resistance against the authorities of her adopted land".

For weeks, Ms Zogaj, a 15 year-old Albanian from Kosovo, had been in hiding after the police deported her father and four siblings to Kosovo, threatening to forcefully remove Ms Zogaj herself as well as her mother.

In several messages and a video broadcast the girl threatened to kill herself if her family could not return to Austria, where they had lived and worked since 2002.

Only after receiving guarantees for her mother and herself, which had to be delivered personally by a local governor and the Minister of the Interior, Arigona Zogaj returned from hiding. However, up to now her family has been refused permission to re-enter Austria and Ms Zogaj’s own fate still remains undecided.

In an unprecedented display of unanimity, media across the political spectrum (from right-wing tabloid press to left-leaning liberal) condemned the actions of the government and specifically the Minister of Interior – a Christian Democrat – over the way the case of Arigona Zogaj was conducted.

The fact is that for years the extreme right wing dominated the debate on immigration issues with social democrats and conservatives giving into their demands of tighter asylum and immigration laws.

Recently, the table has turned and Arigona Zogaj is playing an important role in that change. But her case is just the tip of the iceberg. Since the beginning of 2007, the Austrian Green Party has launched a campaign on behalf of people like Ms Zogaj, who have either lived in Austria illegally or had their legal status removed.

Cases similar to the one just described (although maybe not as spectacular) come to our attention on a daily basis. 30,000 asylum cases remain undecided, some of them having already lasted more than 10 years.

On top of this, constant changes to the immigration legislation have resulted in numerous loopholes causing the loss of legal status for thousands of immigrants in Austria.

And the immigration system produces thousands and thousands of illegal migrants – with no possibility to earn their living or live their lives within a legal framework.

Needless to say, no bureaucracy in any democratic state that observes human rights and the rule of law will ever be able to physically deport more than 30,000 people.

Austria is in dire need of a legalisation programme as other European countries have introduced in the past – in order to respect human rights, for economic reasons and simply because the rules of humane behaviour require such a programme.

First of all, Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights demands the respect of the right to family life and Article 3 declares that no one should be subjected to torture, inhumane or degrading treatment.

Secondly, it makes no economic sense whatsoever for a country to invest public funds in childcare, schooling, health, etc. of young people and then decide to remove them from its soil – before they can contribute to the very society that invested in them.

Thirdly, a system that in its extreme perversity forces mothers to leave their children behind, fathers to leave their families, toddlers to receive an official order for removal is deeply inhumane and should be rejected on those grounds.

The Minister of Interior in Austria (and to my knowledge his colleagues elsewhere) keep arguing that the law must be upheld. Rightly so, but who decided that laws cannot be changed or amended these days? Any minister who resorts to such an argument should be removed from his post for sheer political incompetence. But that is a different story.

More importantly there is a European dimension to all this. Europe needs to stop rambling on about its immigration policy; it needs to agree to a common policy.

National resistance in this matter is highly populist in nature and irresponsible with respect to the future of our continent in a globalised world.

National boundaries never prevented people from moving and Europe, with its history of fortified boundaries, should be aware of this.

So, whatever we do, immigration into Europe will happen.

However, the question arises: Do we get the immigration we need or the immigration we deserve? The latter is the one dictated simply by the demand for cheap labour, most of it within the grey economy, and frankly, this is the kind that Europe is receiving right now.

Qualified people go elsewhere, because elsewhere is where they are welcome, where they can live without legal uncertainties and where there is a public policy of accepting them. Europe needs such a policy and it needs it right now.

The longer we wait, the less acceptance there will be. And whether we like it or not: Europe’s success story is based on the welfare state and thus on the principle that the working population pays for the non-working population, in effect the price for social cohesion.

Personally, I support this idea and I wish for it to continue for a long, long time. But in order to achieve that, we need people to finance this model – people Europe does not produce, but people Europe can take in with open arms. Arigona Zogaj and many like her will build the new Europe. This is a fact and her face is among those that we need to welcome as Europe’s future. Therefore let her people stay!

Alexander Van der Bellen, born 1944, is a professor of economics and chairman of the Austrian Green Party since 1997
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“The guards WANT you to mess up”: meet the prison wives of Instagram

How memes featuring Disney Princesses, Spongebob Squarepants, and saggy jeans have empowered women with incarcerated partners.

During a recent trip to visit her boyfriend in federal prison, 27-year-old Makenzie wore a floor-length black skirt and a grey shirt that completely covered the top half of her body. After a brief inspection, the guard on duty deemed her outfit appropriate and waved her through, and she was able to spend a happy eight hours with her incarcerated boyfriend and her six-year-old daughter. The next day, she came back to visit again.

“I wore the exact same outfit the second day of visitation because I didn’t want to fight with the guards about any other clothing,” says Makenzie, who had to drive five hours out of her home state, Texas, in order to visit her partner. “I was sent away by a guard who had seen me the day before.”

Makenzie felt “belittled and humiliated” by the guard, who forced her to go to the nearest shop to buy a new shirt. “I wore the exact same outfit down to my shoes and earrings,” she explains. When she confronted the guard, Makenzie says he said: “I honestly don’t care.

“All I’m telling you today is you’re not going in there dressed like that.”

Being a “prison wife” can be isolating and confusing. When wives and girlfriends first go to visit their newly-incarcerated partners, the rules and regulations can be overwhelming. When visiting her boyfriend, Makenzie has to place her money in a clear plastic bag, go through a metal detector before a smaller metal detector is used on her feet, and be patted down by guards. If her clothing is too loose or too tight, she is sent home.

“The guards WANT you to mess up,” Makenzie tells me over email, emphasis hers. “They want to make you mad, make you get in trouble.” For wives and girlfriends isolated by these experiences, the internet has become a haven.

***

Makenzie’s Instagram account has 1,123 followers. Under the handle “Texas Prison Wives”, she has been posting memes, photographs, and advice posts for five years. After incidents like the one above, Makenzie can use her account to vent or warn other wives about changes in clothing rules. Followers can also submit text posts to her that she screenshots, overlays on scenic pictures, and publishes anonymously.

One, imposed on a city skyline, asks if anyone wants to carpool to a prison. Another, overlaying a picture of a nude woman, reads: “I’m wondering if I can get some ideas on sexy pics I can take for my man. I’m about 85lbs heavier than I was the last time he saw me naked.”

The prison wives of Instagram recently went viral – but not on their own posts. A Twitter user discovered the community and tweeted out screenshots of prison wife memes – which are formatted with an image and caption like all relatable memes, with the crucial difference being that not many of us can actually relate.

“The life that we live is not widely accepted by families, friends, and the general outside world because people hear ‘inmate’ and automatically assume the worst,” says Makenzie, whose boyfriend was sentenced to two fifteen year sentences for drug possession.

“This account has given women a safe space and anonymity to seek personal advice, ask questions, and seek other women within their area if they want to reach out.” Her account, Makenzie says, also allows prison wives to laugh during tough times. She both makes her own memes and shares those from similar accounts. One, from May 2016, features a collage of four celebrities rolling their eyes. The caption reads: “When you hear ‘Babe, we are going on lock down again…’”

To outside eyes, some prison wife memes can seem flippant or – to those who retweeted the viral tweet – laughable. “My Life As A Prison Wife” is an account with over 12,000 followers that posts a wide array of memes, often using stills from Disney movies to portray emotions. A post featuring an image of a crying Belle – from Beauty and the Beast –  is captioned “that feeling when… when your visits get suspended”. Yet though many online criticise what they see as the glorification or normalisation of a life choice they don’t agree with, Makenzie emphasises that memes – especially funny ones – are important.

“I think it’s fun to have so many people relate to funny memes even though the direct meaning behind it is about being lonely or the hard things we go through to make this relationship work,” she explains. “It’s a reminder we aren’t alone in our struggle and we can laugh through the pain.”

Jemma, a 22-year-old from London who runs an account called “Doing time too”, concurs. Her profile – which has 1,369 followers – showcases memes featuring puppies, Disney princesses, and stills from Spongebob Squarepants.“I'm sure ordinary members of the public would disagree with our light-hearted way of looking at our loved ones being in prison and I would totally understand that,” she says – also over email.

 

HAPPY VALENTINE'S DAY LADIES  #prisonwife #prisonwifelife #doingtimetoo #inmatelove

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

“Before I was in the situation myself, I would have probably reacted in the same way to an account like the one I now own. But sometimes you end up in situations you never expected to and you deal with things in a way that others won’t understand.”

***

Prison wives don’t use Instagram just for memes. Makenzie’s account helps women in need in an array of ways: they can find out if there have been riots in their partner’s prison; get advice on gifts to send a loved one; and even find out how to appeal sentences. Alongside her Instagram, Jemma also runs a website called www.doingtimetoo.co.uk

Via @TexasPrisonWives

“I started the website because I was in a relationship with someone a couple of years ago who ended up going to prison. It was totally out of the blue for me and something neither of us saw coming,” she says. “I had no idea how to deal with it.” Her site provides information about individual prisons, what to expect from a prison visit, and what to do after release. She also provides tips on how to send creative gifts made out of paper to incarcerated loved ones.

“I believe the internet has been a massive help in supporting prison wives,” says Jemma, who finds most people don’t understand or relate to her situation. Her boyfriend was charged with GBH (grievous bodily harm) and sentenced to two years in prison, after getting into a fight.

Jemma also feels that Instagram can provide prison wives with information that the prisons themselves withhold. “I can't speak for everyone but in my experience, prisons and the visit centres are far from helpful in providing any information, support or advice,” she says. “Sometimes people won’t hear from their husband when they expect to but through interacting with other ‘prison wives’ they may find out that that particular prison is currently on lock down, providing an explanation and reassurance as to why they hadn’t heard from their husband. Without the internet, this wouldn't happen.”

 

Advice! @mothafukn.irvin

A post shared by OFFICIAL N. CALI SUPPORT (@north_cali_prisonwives) on

When Jemma reached out to prison visitor centres in the UK to promote her website to those in need, she never heard back. When she emailed her boyfriend’s visitor centre prior to her first visit to ask what to do, what to wear, and what to expect, she also never received a reply. “There is no communication with family and no support offered… It’s important to remember that the families themselves did nothing wrong or illegal and so don’t deserved to be punished or treated like criminals themselves.” In such circumstances, information shared online is crucial.

Makenzie also believes that the US prison system has it faults when it comes to visitors. “While I know and understand that inmates are being punished for a crime they committed, the guards treat their families disrespectfully and unfairly almost as if we are being punished as well,” she says. “Being a larger woman, I have gotten in trouble for my clothes being too tight AND for my clothes being too loose. It’s a lose-lose situation.”

Makenzie explains that sometimes visitors are forced to wear gowns similar to those worn in hospitals if their clothes are deemed unsuitable. In the past, she has even been sent away to buy a new bra after she wore one without underwire in order to get through the metal detector. In one prison her boyfriend was incarcerated in, visitors had to wait outside to be signed in, one-by-one, regardless of the weather. “We had to wait two hours several times, sweating, drenched in rain, they don’t care…

“The guards degrade your loved ones right in front of your face, they are mean, hateful, and over the top rude, even to the inmates who are the most well behaved and respectful.”

For these women, Instagram has become an invaluable network of support.

***

There are hundreds of Instagram accounts just like Jemma and Makenzie’s. Many often take memes from each other, but Jemma explains there is no competition. In fact, she says, the network is incredibly supportive. “I spoke to one lady regularly about her situation and I remember counting down to her boyfriend’s release date with her,” she says. Jemma and Makenzie also use their accounts to help lonely prisoners find pen pals.

Instagram allows prison wives to find likeminded people, free from judgement. Yet the accounts can also be incredibly informative to outsiders. By using the “When…” format, memes provide a detailed insight into the lives of prison wives. “When you’re kissing baby towards the beginning/end of the visit and the CO yells ‘enough’,” reads one. “When you check your phone and see… not only did you miss 1 call, you missed two,” is the caption on an image of a crying child.

 

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

“Nobody understands this long distance, no physical intimacy, and then the added stresses of dealing with prison politics, corrupt guards, and the worry of riots, lock downs, and retaliation like women who are living through the same thing,” says Makenzie. Yet thanks to these Instagram accounts, outsiders do have an opportunity to understand.

For prison wives, memes are an easy and fast way to talk about a topic that many deem taboo. The fact that Jemma and Makenzie wished to communicate with me over email, and the fact many more prison wives didn’t want to speak to me at all, shows how difficult it can be to talk about these issues. For many, memes are just a bit of fun. For prison wives, they can be a lifeline.

 

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

 “None of us enjoy prison visits or being treated like we are criminals ourselves. We don't enjoy waiting for phone calls that never arrive or having to deal with situations all on our own but if we can laugh about it, that’s something,” explains Jemma.

“Memes allow us all to laugh at the situations we are in, rather than cry.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.