A Teenager's Asylum Plea Ignites an EU Immigration Debate

In October a Kosovar teenager named Arigona Zogaj upended classic Austrian disdain for immigrants. It was a "fairy tale," Gunther Mueller, a reporter for the Austrian weekly newsmagazine Profil told me in Vienna's famous Café Prueckel last week, describing the country's obsession with the girl who ran away from deportation authorities and appealed to the country via YouTube for help to remain in the only home she could actually remember.

Arigona, 15, was born in Kosovo to Albanian Muslim parents. Their home was bombed in 1999; Arigona's father, with the aid of smugglers, fled through Montenegro and Italy, ending up in Austria. Mr. Zogaj applied for political asylum and then sent for his family -- Arigona, her mother, two older brothers, and two baby siblings. The Zogajs settled into Frankenberg, a bucolic, typically Austrian, rural town in Upper Austria. They integrated well, Mueller, the Profil journalist, explained to me. They didn't "look" Muslim, they dressed like Westerners. The father had work.

But, progressively, each of the family's three asylum applications was rejected. The first week of October, in the middle of the night, police cars drove up to the Zogaj home and arrested the family, taking them into detention for eventual deportation -- technically called "readmission" -- to Kosovo. Only Arigona slipped through the dragnet, ran into the night, and went into hiding. A week later she released an online video begging -- in perfect German -- to let her and her family stay; she threatened to take her own life. The father and siblings were already on their way to Kosovo, the mother, who suffered a public nervous breakdown, was permitted to stay behind to appeal for her daughter. The children were sent to school immediately in Kosovo, studying suddenly in Albanian, a language none of them can speak.

Austria's immigrants have never felt particularly comfortable. The late 19th to mid-20th century saw polemics (including, but not limited to, anti-Semitic) published against foreigners from the East, and today it is not uncommon to read alarmist screeds in the populist/right-wing papers warning of "another Turkish invasion," a dubious reference linking the Turkish sieges of Vienna in the 16th and 17th centuries and current immigration from Turkey. As in other Western European countries, in Austria there is a distinctly racialized us-versus-them understanding of citizenship; anyone brown or black is visibly non-native Austrian, as are wearers of headscarves or other non-Christians. Even legal immigrants internalize this sense of outsider/insider status. When I walked into an Internet and phone card shop the other day on the Stubenring in the 1st District of Vienna, the Arabic-speaking shop owner asked me if I were really American or a second-generation immigrant like he was -- born there, raising children there, but not of Austria.

If legal, ostensibly integrated, nationalized immigrants feel this way, it is doubly difficult for those who come to Austria, claim asylum, and then wait in purgatory to see how the state decides their fate. Statistically and historically, seeking asylum is a shoddy means of getting into Europe. Asylum claims can take years and often fail on a technicality -- witness the temporary stripping of Dutch Parliamentarian Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Dutch citizenship in the spring of 2006 when the interior minister found an inconsistency in her story of escape from Somalia. (That same week the Austrian interior minister declared that nearly half of all Muslims who come to Austria are "unintegrateable" and should find another country.) Yet many would-be immigrants petition for asylum anyway; 30,000 backlogged cases of likely to be deported asylum-seekers are stuck in the Austrian immigration system alone. Most European Union countries officially allow for the incarceration of asylum-seekers in limbo for between 30 and 60 days. The situation may get even worse if the European Parliament adopts a measure that would allow the incarceration of asylum-seekers for up to 18 months with a forced five-year ban on reapplication to any EU country.

The condition and mental health of incarcerated asylum-seekers have raised human-rights concerns across the continent. In June 2005 Amnesty International issued a report blasting the United Kingdom for criminalizing the mere desire to be British. "Prison-like conditions," Amnesty accused, "inflict untold misery." Human-rights abuses and the safety of migrants are raising concerns everywhere, and horror stories have only mounted. Just this summer a gagged and bound Nigerian migrant died on a deportation plane from Spain; outrage brewed on both sides. As bleak as asylum-seekers' outlook may be, many Austrians have never had much sympathy for them. The Freedom Party, formerly the haunt of Nazi sympathizer Jorg Haider, played on the population's healthy xenophobic streak to great success in the late 1990s. Which is why it was such a surprise to see the outpouring of support last month for Arigona Zogaj.

Gunther Mueller visited Arigona's father in his impoverished Kosovar town, where donkeys pull wood to heat still-destroyed homes, the unemployment rate hovers around 60 percent, and educating girls isn't particularly well regarded. "Arigona is a young, very cute, beautiful girl who escaped the police," Mueller said, noting, too, her excellent language skills. She sounded -- and looked -- Austrian. "Austrians, normally they don't have any pity with asylum-seekers, especially when they are black. This time everyone was so 'Ahhhhhh -- such sweet girl!' So the situation in the country turned, the opinion turned."

Thousands demonstrated on Arigona's behalf. A priest took her in. Her schoolmates demanded her return. "In the same week you had a guy from Nigeria who was followed by the police, and he put a knife in his stomach saying 'I don't want to leave!' And tack!" Mueller demonstrated by thrusting a knife at his stomach, then ran his hand through his tangled mess of short curly hair and lit a cigarette.

A week after Arigona reappeared, Alexander Van der Bellen, an Austrian Green Party official, wrote an article in the New Statesman wondering why it was that Austria -- so desperate demographically for immigrants, so literally old without them -- was turning away integrated, skilled workers like Arigona's father and creating mini human disasters for thousands of long-time Austrian residents.

"Readmission is a very, very tricky issue," says Jean-Pierre Cassarino, scientific coordinator for the Return Migration to the Maghreb (MIREM) project, hosted by the Robert Schuman Center for Advanced Studies in Florence, Italy. "It is not only an issue of immigration, it is also a question of diplomatic relations between countries." Kosovo, Cassarino points out, wants to be seen as a "credible actor" in European Union relations -- perhaps even looking forward to economic favorite status in the future or, dare to hope, EU membership. That means Kosovo gives the essential travel documents that allow their citizens to be "readmitted" or deported back to Kosovo. The human disaster of such readmission is incalculable.

"The willingness of a country of origin to conclude a readmission agreement does not mean that it has the legal institutional and structural capacity to deal with the removal of its nationals, let alone the forced return of foreign nationals and the protection of their rights," Cassarino wrote recently in This Century's Review. It is an unequal relationship between nations -- origin countries often rely heavily on the funds sent back by their departing citizens, not to mention the "safety valve" effect of allowing them to leave.

"Arigona changed things," Mueller said in Café Prueckel, which sits on a square named for a famously anti-Semitic and anti-immigration late 19th /early 20th-century Viennese mayor, Dr. Karl Lueger. "A lot of politicians said, 'Oh it's so inhuman! And we should make a change, and make a new law saying that all asylum-seekers here in Austria for more than five years should have the right to stay anyway.' The public opinion was very, very pro Arigona. Even Kronen Zeitung [the large right-wing daily paper], which is normally against asylum-seekers, said, 'We have to show pity.' And the political parties really made a wicked game," Mueller said, taking a drag on his cigarette. Austria's ruling coalition, he said, the Conservatives and the Social Democrats, strengthened the migration law three or four years ago to ensure all asylum-seekers -- whether they were in the country one year or 15 years -- would face deportation. "The prime minister said, 'Oh Arigona can't stay? It's inhuman! It's cruel!' But he was the one who decided the law, so [he] is a kind of hypocrite."

Yet Arigona, as much as she has become a symbol for the faceless deported, actually represents the more humane side of asylum-seekers' nightmares in Austria. Her family remained in detention only a few evenings. And while they are currently forcibly separated, they are technically "free." Her fate is, as of yet, undecided. Mueller is convinced politicians' hands are tied and the goodwill soon will run out. If they let her stay, they will face a barrage of similar requests from much less attractive migrants.

Ultimately Arigona's question is one of economic survival and what the role and responsibility of Europe and other developed nations is to the bordering countries desperate to be a part of their economic success. It is something not dissimilar from current anti-immigrant sentiment among politicians in the United States. As David Brooks wrote in last Friday's New York Times, Rudy Giuliani once roguishly stood for the rights of immigrants like Arigona's family, pointing out the benefits New York City gleaned from gainfully employed newcomers, legal and otherwise; now he tentatively speaks from the opposite side of the political spectrum. Even Hillary Clinton's debate mishaps around giving undocumented immigrants driver's licenses point to a worrying trend in the United States.

It used to be we could sit on these shores comfortable in our ability to integrate, and embrace a multicultural society built upon, and continuously enhanced by, immigration. We could look to the Europeans with bewilderment, wondering how they could be so daft, with their negligible natural population growth and desperate need for a varied workforce, and remain unable to expand their idea of citizenship. Yet somehow we have lost that clear moral path, closing ourselves off from the idea of immigration just as forcefully as our Austrian, French, and German counterparts. We are far more likely to read about our own Arigona Zogaj, than the next Emma Lazarus.