Austria should stop detaining children and halt the deportations of well-integrated foreign families that are denied asylum, Amnesty International and three other groups urged Thursday.
The country also should better protect the rights of non-Austrian minors and become more lenient about allowing young asylum seekers and their parents to stay on humanitarian grounds, the organizations, which include Caritas, SOS Kinderdorf and Diakonie, said in a letter to lawmakers.
The appeal comes just days after two 8-year-old twins were taken into custody with their father in an early morning raid and deported back to their native Kosovo. Their mother, who is in psychiatric care, stayed behind. The four had lived in Austria since 2004 but were expelled after being denied asylum and refusing to leave on their own.
The family's plight has sparked widespread debate and protest, with critics calling the deportations heartless and inhumane. Interior Minister Maria Fekter defended it, saying she was following the rule of law and the children were with their father. She has since softened her stance slightly, acknowledging Wednesday that pictures of the detention _ widely published by local media _ "greatly moved her" and that she wanted such pickups to be done in a more "humane" manner in the future.
"It can't be necessary for the security of the republic to separate two children from their mother and to forcefully get them out of the country," the groups wrote in their joint letter presented outside parliament in the Austrian capital, Vienna. They later met with Austrian President Heinz Fischer, who told reporters that "prison is no place for children" and other solutions had to be found.
"It's tough to grasp why well-integrated families whose children have spent most of their lives in Austria and who speak German better than their mother tongue aren't granted the right to stay for humanitarian reasons," the letter said.
Also Thursday, a 14-year-old Armenian girl resurfaced after disappearing Wednesday before police could pick her up from school so she could be deported. Her mother, meanwhile, is under suicide watch and has been hospitalized, Austrian broadcaster ORF reported.