In the dead of the night, in the middle of a raging global pandemic, Austria’s Interior Ministry chartered a plane to deport children back to the Eastern Caucasus. Among those to be deported are 12-years-old Tina and her sister 5-years-old Lea, who were both born in Austria.
On Tuesday, January 26, Tina was having dinner with her sister Lea and their mother when there was a knock at the door. Four officers of the immigration authorities asked the three to pack their bags within half an hour. That same evening, they were taken to a facility in Vienna-Simmering where they were to wait for their deportation flights to Georgia.
The children’s mother, originally from Georgia, came for the first time to Austria in 2006 where she applied for asylum. She had to leave Austria and re-entered two years later. All levels of review rejected her various asylum applications. The family has so far refused to leave the country, informed sources reported to the Ö1-Mittagsjournal that six previous deportation attempts by the authorities had been unsuccessful.
Calls for a Humanitarian Right to Stay
While the legal situation seems clear at first, experts say the decision does not reflect the interests of children, who have spent practically all their live in Austria. A “humanitarian right to stay” (humanitäres Bleiberecht) is always an option in these cases, but was denied by the Austrian Interior Ministry.
Asylum lawyer Wilfried Embacher sees many such cases: “The situation of the children, although provided for by law, is not sufficiently taken into account,” he said to the ORF, “and the children currently follow the legal fate of their parents, although priority should be given to the best interests of the child.”
Neither Tina and Lea has ever gone to school in Georgia, and can neither read nor write the language. “This is a completely unimaginable interference with [Tina’s] interests and actually a destruction of her future,” Embacher said.
The situation is not unlike the so-called “Dreamers” in the U.S., who were brought to the States as children, have never known any other country but could face deportation at any time. The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act introduced under President Barack Obama was meant to stop these deportations. It was partially rescinded by President Donald Trump and is expected to be reinstated by President Joseph R. Biden.
The signal the Austrian authorities sent was only noticed abroad, as BBC reporter Sir John Simpsons drew the attention to the coincidence of the deportations exactly on and after Holocaust Memorial Day on January 27.
The case of the Georgian family in Austria became widely known through fellow students and teachers in Vienna who brought it to public attention. Among those was also Florian Klenk, editor-in-chief of the Vienna weekly Falter.
“We are stunned, sad, angry and indignant,” one of Tina’s teachers told the Austrian daily Heute, summing up the mood at the school. Tina attends the third grade of the Stubenbastei Gymnasium in Vienna’s 1st district. “She is very well integrated and speaks fluent German,” the teacher said.
On Wednesday afternoon, classmates demonstrated in front of the deportation center. The class’s student representative, Johann Philipp, told Ö1: “For Tina, a world is collapsing, as it is for her classmates. Nobody understands that this is an absolutely integrated family.”
The students also started a petition – so far signed by over 28,000 people – asking the authorities to allow Tina and her family to stay, . One of her classmate posted: “I can’t understand how such a great person who has a life here in Austria, goes to school, has friends is being deported in the middle of the school year and during a pandemic.
“Please help us.”
In the night of Wednesday to Thursday, January 28, at 03:00 in the morning, the Viennese special police unit WEGA came with dogs and heavy gear to escort the family and others to the airport. A demonstration of about 150 people, including several MPs of the SPÖ, Greens and NEOS, tried to slow the process and stop the deportations. A student sit-in was dispersed by the police at 05:00, claiming coronavirus curfew restrictions.
The case also has repercussions on the federal level, where the conservative ÖVP governs with the center-left Greens in a coalition. Criticism of the ÖVP hardline stance on immigration and asylum has been repeatedly leveled at the government in recent months. The Greens usually replies that center-left majorities are not possible in the current parliament and that the ÖVP could always strike a deal with the far-right FPÖ if the Greens were to leave the coalition. This was also the argument when Austria refused to take any children from the refugee camp in Kara Tepe in Moria on Lesbos, Greece.
In the current case, however, no change of law would have been needed – the Interior Ministry could grant a “humanitarian right to stay” (humanitäres Bleiberecht), as called for by Health Minister Rudolf Anschober (Greens). “It can’t be that perfectly integrated young people are taken out of school – we’re talking about students who don’t know their country of origin and don’t know the language,” he said. Anschober said he now had the “promise from the Ministry of the Interior” that these cases will “at least” be closely examined.
The local civil rights initiative SOS Mitmensch has also recently launched a campaign and petition called #hiergeboren (#bornhere) which aims to give children born in Austria the Austrian citizenship.
However, ÖVP security representative Harald Mahrer denied all hope in this regard. Changes in the citizenship law are “currently not on the table.” For now, existing asylum procedures must be worked through and rejected asylum seekers “repatriated in an orderly manner,” Mahrer said. The Ministry of Interior did not comment further on the case.
As deportation flights in Austria are chartered, and their flight data and whereabouts not public, it cannot be said for certain where the family is now. Since arriving at the airport in the dead the night, it is very likely that they have now already been deported.