Author: Ivonne Marschall, dpa
Story date: 10/10/2007
Vienna_(dpa) _ Arigona Zogaj, a 15-year-old asylum seeker from Kosovo, triggered a political debate that may lead to the reassessment of Austria's strict asylum laws.
For two weeks, the teenager hid from Austrian authorities, saying she would rather die than be deported, causing a shift in public consciousness that years of campaigns by humanitarian organizations failed to achieve.
The girl had run away on September 26, when her family, well-integrated in their second home in Frankenberg, a village in Upper Austria for the past years, was forced by Austrian authorities to leave the country, as their asylum claims were denied.
In a moving video message, the runaway teenager shocked the Austrian public, speaking from a bleak room, she said she would rather kill herself than return to Kosovo, the home she had never known.
Arigona's father and three of the five siblings were taken by Austrian police and sent back to Kosovo in late September. Arigona's mother, who suffered a nervous breakdown when her daughter ran away, was allowed to stay behind and look for her daughter.
Arigona on Tuesday met privately with Upper Austrian governor Josef Puehringer, the Austrian press agency reported. She is currently in the care of a local Catholic priest.
The fate of the Zogaj family shed a sharp light on Austria's strict immigration rules. Human rights groups repeatedly slammed the "inhumane" rigid adherence to the strict rules, that frequently tear apart families.
The Austrian public, often indifferent to the fates of asylum seekers, seemed shaken by the fate of the Kosovar family, calling on their politicians to set the record straight.
In the course of the past two weeks, an increasing number of politicians called for residence permits on humanitarian grounds, for the thousands of families that have been living in Austria for years, without having their asylum status ever confirmed. Many, like the Zognaj family, entered the country with the aid of human traffickers.
Conservative Interior Minister Guenther Platter, in the centre of criticism, on Wednesday stressed the young woman's health now was a priority. Platter was under fire for enforcing the new asylum rules, that had lead to a steady increase in deportations and prosecution of illegal immigrants.
Fractures inside Austria's government coalition were brought to the fore. The country's Social Democrats scrambled to the aid of the Zogaj family, with Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer calling the deportation "disgusting." The conservative People's Party, junior partner in the coalition, on the other hand remained adamant in their refusal to give the immigration laws a more humanitarian touch.
Austria toughened its immigration laws in 2005 under the previous centre-right government, playing to increasing public resistance against illegal immigrants, mainly from Africa, and xenophobic populism pandered by the right-wing "Freedom Party." Not wishing to be outdone, the then-opposition Social Democrats supported the new laws.
United Nations refugee organization UNHCR criticized the new laws as in violation of the Geneva convention. The number of asylum claims decreased drastically from around 39,000 in 2002 to just over 13,000 in 2006. Around 40 per cent of the applications are accepted, often after years of legal wrangling.
Arigona and her mother have been allowed to stay in Austria until the Supreme Court decides about their future.
Refugees Global Press Review
Compiled by Media Relations and Public Information Service, UNHCR
For UNHCR Internal Distribution