Fischer’s Failure, Austria’s Shame

The values and the politics of the painful situation are wrong. What’s going on?

Opinion | Alec Kinnear | July / August 2010

Austrian immigration policy is a black box, deliberately kept that way by both the politicians and the media. Bad people get sent away and good people get to stay, it seems – at least according to members of both the upper and middle classes I’ve spoken to on my travels.

For some reason, Austrians think that immigrants – or even and refugees -- are privy to a number of luxuries: lots of money, nice apartments, no real need to work. Of course this is far from the truth. Many immigrants come here specifically for a job; and refugees, often fleeing economic as well as political hardship at home, are eager to work but are not allowed to. Instead, they are held in dreadful holding tanks for up to three years. The police are told to dig up any kind of small violation in order to deport them as criminals. And of course, working on the black market – which some refugees are forced to do when they run out of legitimate employment options – is also a crime.

In fact, since the tighter restrictions of Dublin convention in 2003 and the new Austrian Asylum law of 2005 [see "No Talent Need Apply," by Clemens Weygandt, Vienna Review, April 2007], fewer and fewer refugees have even had the chance to have their case heard in Austria – down from 39,254 applicants in 2002 to 15,821 in 2009. Nowadays, most applicants are commonly handed off to the Hungarian police, or to the Greeks; refugees are dealt with even more harshly. According to the Ministry of the Interior, of the 20,327 refugee cases decided in the last year, only 3,247 were allowed to stay – leaving 13,541 to be deported.

As Stalin said, "the death of one man is a tragedy, but the death of millions is a statistic." But the case of Arigona Zogaj puts a face on this madness. Arigona, who studied for all of high school in Austria, reads and writes German as her primary language and is now in community college here. She was well integrated in her community and her school. In protest of her deportation, over 10,000 have signed a petition in her support, delivered to Austrian President Heinz Fischer and Chancellor Faymann Jun 30. And a demonstration is planned for Thu. Jul. 1 on Heldenplatz, where over 40,000 gathered in 2000 to protest the coalition of the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) with the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) of Jörg Haider.

As in many Western countries, the median age of the Austrian population is rising steadily, with the number of people set to leave the workforce outnumbering the number joining. Somebody will have to contribute to paying aging Austrians pensions. Why not Arigona Zogaj?

Humanitarian grounds argue that Arigona Zogaj be allowed to continue her education. Practical grounds argue that when that education is finished she be allowed to go to work and to pay taxes in Austria. Furthermore, the Republic has already subsidized Arigona Zogaj’s education. Why throw away the investment?

Instead, this young woman has become a political football for the ÖVP and the FPÖ. The ÖVP would like to harvest the votes of the extreme right so their interior minister, Maria Fekter, is towing a hard line. But one can’t expect much grace from Fekter or the ÖVP. When asked last summer about police discrimination against foreigners, Fekter retorted, "In my opinion, Austria’s police are less racist than the people of Austria would like."

More surprising and particularly shameful is President Heinz Fischer’s silence and inaction.

"I don’t want to even comment on the possibility of her return after a voluntary departure," Fischer said recently.

Why has this man, running almost unopposed, returned to the Hofburg for another six years if not to solve thorny questions that affect the Austrian state? The executive branch of government doesn’t come cheap. Let President Fischer do his duty and find a peaceful solution to this humanitarian crisis.

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