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Austrians rally in support of teenage Kosovan asylum seeker

A Kosovan family in Austria who are due to be deported have gained huge support in Vienna. After a ten-year battle to stay in the country, their case has led to claims the country's asylum laws are inhumane.

Arigona Zogaj

Arigona Zogaj threatened suicide if her family could not stay in Austria

A large demonstration was held Thursday in the Austrian capital Vienna, in support of a teenager who faces deportation.

The Zogaj family, who are originally from Kosovo, have been battling for almost ten years to be allowed to stay in Austria. Their case has gathered huge media attention and divided the country over whether they should be allowed to stay.

According to Austrian newspaper Der Standard, the demonstration grew from around 500 people at the start to around 20,000. In the run-up to the protest, Austria's Green party collected over 10,000 signatures for a petition.

Fleeing Kosovo

In 2001, the Zogaj family, along with thousands of others fled the chaos in Kosovo following the conflict with Serbia. They travelled illegally to Austria and applied for, and were rejected asylum. Numerous appeals to stay were also rejected by the Austrian government.

Arigona Zogaj's family

Arigona Zogaj's family has already been deported

One of the Zogaj daughers, Arigona, then aged 15, went into hiding in 2007 to avoid being deported with her father. She was protected by the community of Frankenburg where she went to school. As the rest of her family were deported, Arigona Zogaj made a video message plea to the media. "I had hoped we could stay here, but they want to send me back along with my brother and sister," her message said.

Speaking in fluent German, Arigona said she no longer knew anyone in Kosovo and begged to be reunited with her family.

Ever since the video plea, Arigona's image has become a common front page feature in the Austrian media as more and more people backed the Zogajs' cause.

Seeking sanctuary

After going into hiding in Frankenburg, in upper Austria, Arigona was protected by local priest Josef Friedl among others. He said the decision was "terrible" for the family, especially for Arigona's sick mother.

"In Kosovo she will not be able to afford the treatment," Friedl said. "It could mean the end for her."

Interior minister Maria Fekter from the conservative People's Party, has defended the deportation, saying she "can't be everyone's darling."

Members of Austrian government. Interior minister Fekter (2nd right).

The Austrian government's asylum policy has been labelled 'inhumane'

"We have a big backlog of cases, in fact 20,000 people are waiting for decisions and for a single case we cannot turn a blind eye," Fekter said.

The case of the Zogaj family went all the way to the constitutional court, which this month supported the decision of the interior minister.

For and against

Anti-Zogaj sentiment is strongest with the far-right freedom party, who claim the family should have been sent back years ago. However, a broad cross-section of Austrian society and many high profile figures have spoken out against the government's tough line on asylum.

One of the government's critics is the writer Robert Menasse who says the policy to deport the family is "contrary to human rights".

"For many years Austrian asylum policies have only concerned themselves with how one can appease the racists and everyday fascists of this country," Menasse said.

"Stay Arigona, stay"

Arigona Zogaj is now 18-years-old and a love song urging her to stay has been written for her, as well as a prominent television personality offering to marry her in order to give her residential rights.

However the deadline for the expected deportation is fast approaching. This weekend the town of Frankenburg will throw a farewell party for the family and in the days that follow it is expected they will be flown to Kosovo.

Interior minister Fekter has hinted that a new application to return to Austria – one that meets legal requirements – may be considered. For now though, the law will be carried out to the letter.

Author: Kerry Skyring in Vienna (cb)
Editor: Rob Turner

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