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!