Immigration’s Uncivil Law

The Austrian Interior Ministry’s deportations of children draw growing criticism

Daniella and Dorentinya Komani are greeted by the the media after landing at the Vienna airport | Photo: Reuters/Heinz-Peter Bader

In the arrivals hall of the Vienna International Airport, Daniella and Dorentinya Komani smiled and waved into the camera. Accompanied by their beaming father, Augustin, the 8-year-old twin girls set foot back in Austria on Oct. 21, back to the country they had grown up in, but had had to leave, despite their mother’s open asylum application that lay unresolved in an Austrian court. The girls’ mother has been hospitalized, due to severe psychological problems related to stress.

It had been a dramatic few weeks: In the early hours of the morning of Oct. 6, immigration police had raided the “Freunde Schützen Haus” (“Friends-Protection-House”), a place where families in immediate danger of deportation can find shelter. The twins and their father were taken to a deportation center and from there to Pristina, Kosovo.

The case caused a public outcry – especially after footage appeared of policemen standing outside the children’s room with machine guns. A wave of protest followed, from child protection services, human rights advocates, intellectuals and the major churches, and two weeks later, the girls and her father were allowed to return on a “humanitarian visa.”

Not all children were this lucky. In another case, baby Yusof Lkhagvasuren and his mother, Uyanga, were flown on Oct. 21. from Prague to her home in Mongolia. Having fled to Austria originally through the Czech capital, where she had a work visa, she continued on to Salzburg where her sister was living and working as an au pair. Mother and 8-month old child were forced to return to Prague in June, awaiting a decision on their asylum application, and had been locked up in a detention center awaiting deportation. Austrian authorities claimed they did not believe the family would be deported from another EU country, however, the Viennese weekly Falter concluded that the ministry was aware of the consequences.

“All of the relevant authorities must have realized this would happen,” wrote Barbara Toth in the left-wing weekly Falter of the week of Oct 18.

Yusof’s father Fahim Naziri, a taxi-driver of Afghan origin with naturalized Austrian citizenship, was told by the authorities that his right to a life with his family was considered less important than “public order,” and that he could visit his partner and child in the detention center.

These and similar cases have led to widening protests against Austria’s asylum policy. “Austria is an ‘immigration country’ without an immigration policy,” says Anton Pelinka, Professor for Political Science at the Central European University in Budapest and an expert on Austrian domestic politics and issues related to migration and xenophobia.

The numbers are impossible to refute: In 2010, 16% percent of Austrians are  foreign born, and in Vienna, it is a full third (32.8%). However the statistics do not reflect a refugee crisis as some of the extremist rhetoric suggests: Most foreigner in Austria come from another EU country (11.1%), followed by the former Yugoslavia (10.2%), and then Turkey (4.3%). The largest number of new residency permits in Austria today now go to Germans.

With the deportation of the Komani twins, Interior Minister Maria Fekter (“Iron Mitzi”) is facing a storm of opposition to her “law and order” politics, including from her own party, the ÖVP (Austrian People’s Party). Days before the municipal elections in Vienna Oct. 10, Fekter was still insisting that the deportation of the twin girls from Kosovo had been conducted according to the requirements of the law and had been carried out satisfactorily. This move was interpreted by observers as an attempt to draw votes from the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ).

However, after significant losses, Fekter back-peddled. In an interview with the Austrian weekly magazine News, she admitted that deportations of families required a different approach.

“No, this procedure was not ideal,” Interior Minister Fekter said. “Family deportations simply require more sensitivity –  I missed that in the most recent cases.”

As a result, she fired Stefan Stortecky, head of the Austrian ‘Fremdenpolizei’ (the enforcement arm of the Immigration Service), whom many saw as a fall guy for her own policy failures.

His successor, Andrea Jelinek, promised several adjustments to the procedures. In an interview with the Falter, Jelinek acknowledged the necessity of a better communication strategy and more dialogue with NGOs, and more sensitivity and more respect for children’s rights. Jelinek is not alone in her view that children should be kept out of police detention centers. The Board of the Austrian Society for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry issued a statement in the Austrian daily Der Standard developing a scenario that “guarantees the grave and lasting psychological harm” to a child:

“Take an already traumatized child of a young age seeking asylum, let policemen in uniform separate the child from his hospitalized mother, who is at risk of suicide, and take it to a place it has never seen before.” As this is pretty much what happened to the Komani twins, the situation leaves the psychiatrists “speechless and extremely concerned”.

They are not the only ones. After the deportation of the twins, a broad coalition of NGOs, including Amnesty International, SOS Children’s Villages, Caritas and members of all big denominations joined into an association under the name “Against Injustice” (“Gegen Unrecht”). One of their aims, they announced, was the implementation of the UN-Convention on the Rights of the Child in the Austrian constitution, which would make children’s rights actionable under the law.

The idea that children, who were de-facto Austrians, are taken out of their homes in the early morning hours to be deported, enraged many. After Hans Jörg Ulreich had watched how one of his son’s friends had been deported to Kosovo over night, as reported in the Falter, he helped to found an organization called “Purple Sheep”, which runs the “Freunde-Schützen-Haus” where the Komanis stayed until their deportation.

In another case last February, the citizens of the village of Röthis in Vorarlberg successfully stopped the deportation of the Durmisi family to Kosovo. Anela and Elvis Durmisi and their two daughters had lived there already for five years, spoke German and were also regarded as “well integrated”, according to an article in Die Presse in April. They had originally received a positive response to their asylum application, as they belong to the Gorani, an ethnic minority in Kovoso. However, after the unexpected death of the presiding judge, the situation had unraveled and the community had intervened on behalf of the family.

Fekter now also faces opposition from a growing list of public figures: In the magazine News, several Austrian journalists, intellectuals, politicians and NGO-officials have addressed the Interior Minister in open letters: “I have a dream – that well integrated families with children are not treated… like criminals” wrote journalist Barbara Stöckl; “Can you sleep at night?” wrote Evelyn Böhmer-Laufer, a psychotherapist and child of Holocaust survivors.

Political Scientist Pelinka regards the filming of the raid in the “Freunde Schützen Haus” also as a skilful use of the media. The contrast of the young children and the machine guns has damaged Fekter and initiated a re-thinking process, he said.

Fekter had already back-peddled in the famous case of Arigona Zogaj and her family, who were flown to Kosovo this summer after several years of continuous appeals against the decision to deport them. As Arigona’s face appeared on the front pages of newspapers and magazines all over the country, showing a beautiful but saddened young woman, several Austrian intellectuals, celebrities and members of the civil society joined in protest of the family’s right to stay. Authorities then stated that members of the family could return through the backdoor: Arigona could continue her education, her mother would receive a visa for seasonal workers. All of which still leaves her father and brothers uprooted and struggling back in Kosovo, where the boys have never lived and barely speak the language.

What all these cases have in common is that children and young people who grew up in Austria, or in some cases were born here, are being deported after spending a large part or all of their childhoods in Austria. They are well integrated in their local communities, are fluent in German, have a social network and in many cases, have never even seen their parents’ home country. All this makes them de-facto Austrians, but without citizenship or a permanent residence permit, they can be deported anytime when their families’ asylum application fails.

The reason for this situation is the long time – five to 10 years in some cases – it used to take the Austrian courts to decide on applications for asylum. In 2008, a special court to handle asylum applications was established (“Asylgerichtshof”), which has led to speedier processing. On Oct. 19, the Austrian government also established a new ministry to combine the departments for asylum and migration.

Political scientist Pelinka urges a stricter separation of the terms “asylum” and “immigration”. According to the criteria of the Geneva Convention, Pelinka says, refugees from Kosovo, except when they are Roma, indeed do not have a right to claim “asylum”, as they have fled a war rather than persecution. However, he advocates their being allowed to stay in the country for more general reasons.

“Austria needs immigrants, because of the demographic trends,” he said. “Also, the country has invested in these children, so their deportation doesn’t make sense economically either. Arigona wanted to be a nurse; we need nurses, so why not let her stay.”

For the lucky ones, a long-term future in Austria now looks possible. Fahim Naziri told the Falter that he plans to save enough money to be able to fly to Mongolia and marry Uyanga there, so he can be reunited with his partner and son.

And the Komani twins are back at the “Freunde Schützen Haus” in Vienna with their father, where they are awaiting the outcome of their mother’s asylum application.

They went back to school on Nov. 3.


See also “Fischer’s Failure, Austria’s Shame” in TVR Jul/Aug 2010, and the follow-ups in Dec 2010/Jan 2011, and Mar 2012.

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