Austrian class welcomes back teenage asylum-seeker

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VIENNA, Oct 17 (Reuters) A Kosovo Albanian teenager who had gone into hiding in Austria to avoid deportation was welcomed back to school with flowers by classmates chanting her name.

Arigona Zogaj, 15, escaped deportation by being out when police descended on her family's home last month to deport them after their asylum application was rejected.

She threatened in a video message to kill herself if her family were not reunited in Austria, before resurfacing last weekend in the care of a rural priest.

The fact that she spoke fluent German, and her family had come to view Austria as home in the five years their application took to process, unleashed a flood of accusations that such expulsions were inhumane.

Austria's interior minister met Arigona after she reappeared and assured her she could stay pending a constitutional court ruling due in December.

''This is a really good feeling,'' said a smiling Arigona, as she went back to her school in the town of Voecklamarkt, accompanied by a phalanx of news photographers and cameras, according to the local news agency APA.

Stung by the public criticism, the government on Monday created an ''Integration Commission'' bringing together political parties and civic groups to reassess immigration rules and recommend reforms by mid-2008.

Interior Minister Guenther Platter also announced that deportation orders that risked uprooting or separating families with children would be reviewed before being enforced.

Austria also plans to set up a tribunal next year to clear a backlog of more than 34,000 asylum cases.

Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer's Social Democrats, opposition Greens and civic groups have called for humanitarian exemptions for rejected asylum seekers who have found jobs, learned German and put children in school while waiting years for courts to decide their cases.

But the Conservatives in the coalition government, as well as far-right parties, oppose easing immigration rules for what they say are a few cases hyped by the media, and argue that Austria risks being flooded with economic migrants.

An EU study released on Monday ranked Austria next to last among 27 EU states in efforts to integrate immigrants. It cited restrictive work, residency and citizenship rules and inadequate enforcement of anti-discrimination law.


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