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 age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood