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Kosovo teen's dream of a future in Austria ends

Kosovo teen's dream of a future in Austria ends

Arigona Zogaj has been splashed across the covers of magazines, pursued by paparazzi and can mobilize large crowds. From the sound of it, she could be a movie star.
Her true claim to fame is that Austria doesn't want her.
Late Thursday, the 18-year-old asylum seeker who speaks German like a local returned to Kosovo after losing an eight-year battle to stay in this Alpine republic that has grappled with xenophobia but also seen a surge in support for Zogaj and others who share her plight.
The spotlight on Zogaj comes at an important time in Europe's evolving debate on immigration: Many countries are clamping down as unemployment spikes amid a financial crisis, even as experts increasingly argue that western Europe needs more well-integrated foreigners to compensate for declining birthrates.
Zogaj, a petite brunette whose telegenic looks have captured Austria's imagination, is the most visible of the legions of well-integrated foreigners across Europe who often wait years for final word on asylum cases only to be expelled once they have exhausted legal options.
It's a complex issue on a continent that may need to rely on foreigners like the Zogajs in years to come to keep the economy going and pay for pensions. Instead of deporting well-adapted outsiders, many say, rich European countries should be welcoming them with open arms.
Others accuse the Zogaj family and other asylum seekers of being freeloaders.
The divide is particularly poignant in the family's adopted hometown of Frankenburg, a quiet rural community surrounded by rolling hills.
Some residents side with the Interior Ministry, which has argued for years that the Zogajs, helped by human traffickers, entered Austria with the simple aim of fleeing economic hardship _ not persecution that would have given them a legitimate case for refugee status.
"I think it's about time they're deported since they came here illegally," said 16-year-old Philipp Moro.
Others call the expulsion cruel and unnecessary.
"She should be allowed to stay because I think it's very inhumane and for me people come first," said Christine Hanske, a teacher who said she attended a recent farewell fundraiser for the family at a local restaurant.
Zogaj's plight took a public turn three years ago when, as a 15-year-old, she went into hiding while her father and four siblings were deported when they refused to leave after being denied asylum. Her mother, distraught by her daughter's disappearance, was allowed to remain.
Days later, Zogay resurfaced at the side of a priest after releasing a letter and video in which she threatened to kill herself if her family was not reunited in Austria. That never happened, although her two younger siblings returned to Austria via Hungary and managed to stay.
Attempts by the two older brothers to do the same failed. The father has been in Kosovo ever since the deportation and, according to reports, has left the family.
Arigona's last glimmer of hope faded last month when the country's highest court ruled that the teenager's expulsion _ along with that of her mother and two younger siblings _ was not unconstitutional.
In response to the decision and the government's refusal to relent, at least 7,000 protesters converged on Vienna's Heldenplatz, or Heroes Square, with balloons and banners bearing the girl's name. While some wore T-shirts that read "We are Arigona," others made speeches urging the government to reconsider.
Zogaj has been courted by local media ever since her 2007 disappearance. In January, the highbrow magazine "Profil" even honored her as its "person of the year."
In the weeks leading up to her departure, she tried to keep a low profile, steering clear of the demonstration and declining interview offers.
However, she appeared on the cover of the popular and widely read weekly "News" earlier this month, staring sadly out at readers with her hair pulled back and wearing a black tank top and oversized white earrings. For the past week, she has been a regular in the papers. On Friday, the tabloids Oesterreich and Kronen Zeitung splashed photos of Zogaj kissing her boyfriend goodbye on their front pages.
Advocates say the Zogajs are just one of many families in similar situations.
"Every week, another well-integrated family or well-integrated person is secretly and silently brought out of the country in the dark of night like a dangerous criminal," said Karin Klaric, a 33-year-old lawyer whose organization, Purple Sheep, provides free legal assistance to hundreds of asylum seekers.
Austria has distanced itself from _ and made amends for _ its Nazi past but from time to time still makes headlines with far-right rhetoric by some of its politicians. One of the most prominent was the late Joerg Haider, the former leader of the Freedom Party who was vilified for praising aspects of Adolf Hitler's labor policies and for remarks that some interpreted as anti-Semitic.
Interior Ministry spokesman Rudolf Gollia says Austria's asylum law and the way it handles asylum cases is grounded in the Geneva Refugee Convention, which grants protection to those being persecuted.
That, the ministry argues, is not the case with the Zogajs or with any of the thousands of others whose asylum requests are rejected.
Gollia says Austria is currently reviewing 25,000 asylum applications. The number has been declining steadily and is down from 41,850 at the end of 2005. Deportations stood at 2,481 in 2009, up from 2,026 in 2008, according to the ministry.
In France, the Immigration Ministry says asylum requests have been increasing over the past three years and will likely continue to do so. Of the 47,700 people who applied in 2009, 11,373 were granted asylum.
Italy received 17,603 demands for asylum in 2009, a decrease from 31,097 a year earlier. Last year, Italy admitted 5,193 people, down from 21,416 in 2008.
Hans Joerg Ulreich, a Vienna property developer, was inspired to help asylum seekers by the example of his 10-year-old son's Kosovar friend Bernard, a talented soccer player deported in February along with his brothers and parents.
"My son asked me: 'Papa, are they going to come get me too now?'" said the 42-year-old Ulreich. "I just can't believe it's possible that, in the 21st century, children who talk like us, who go to school here, can be thrown out of the country from one day to the next."
Ulreich teamed up with Klaric and other parents to set up the initiative "Protecting Friends" that appeals to authorities to offer well-integrated foreign families the right to stay in the country on humanitarian grounds when their asylum applications are denied. More than 12,200 people have signed the initiative's online petition.
Advocates point to the still-catastrophic economic realities the Zogaj family faces back in Kosovo _ which declared its independence from Serbia two years ago.
With unemployment rampant at about 45 percent, Arigona and her siblings will likely be joining youths lingering in bars and cafes with little hope for the future unless they successfully apply for student visas. The mother may be able to come back as a seasonal worker.
Josef Friedl, the priest who took in Arigona when she went underground in 2007, says he plans to keep helping them financially and morally in the future.
"I won't forget them in Kosovo," he said.
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Associated Press Writers Nebi Qena in Pristina, Kosovo, Victor Simpson and Rosy Santella in Rome, Rafael Mesquita in Paris and Kirsten Grieshaber and Juergen Baetz in Berlin contributed to this report.


Updated : 2021-08-06 06:31 GMT+08:00