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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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain