By Imogen Foulkes
The decision by some Swiss towns and villages to impose restrictions on the movements of asylum seekers has caused outrage among human rights groups. Many Swiss citizens however say the measures are necessary to prevent crime.
Switzerland has a long tradition of generosity towards refugees. This year there are 48,000 people seeking asylum there, twice the European average per head of population.
But in Switzerland, which has a population of just eight million people, opinion polls consistently show voter concern about high levels of immigration, and about sheltering people who may not be genuine refugees.
The Swiss government, in a bid to address some of those fears, has introduced new tougher asylum laws and promised to speed up the decision-making process so that those who are not genuine refugees are returned quickly to their countries of origin.
In exchange, the government expects towns and villages across Switzerland to share the burden of housing the asylum seekers while their claims are being assessed.
This is where many of the problems begin. Many towns, especially in rural central Switzerland, are not at all happy about having asylum seekers, in their eyes, thrust upon them.
One such case is the little village of Alpnach, with a population of less than 6,000. This week around 80 asylum seekers will take up residence in a set of former army barracks in the village centre.
How would an asylum centre impact Alpnach?
Many residents, like Gregor Duss, whose house overlooks the new centre, are furious.
“As parents, we are concerned,” he says. “We have daughters, I have a daughter, she comes home in the evening after sports, there is a wood, it’s dark, there is only one street light. Of course we are afraid.”
Mr Duss is not able, or does not want, to articulate more clearly exactly what those fears are, but he insists that he and his neighbours who have protested against the centre have nothing against asylum seekers as such, and are certainly not racist.
Many Alpnach residents have installed extra security systems in their homes, and the local council has defined various “sensitive areas” in the village where the asylum seekers should not go.
Swiss village Alpnach creates forbidden zones for asylum seekers
Many residents of Alpnach are furious about their new neighbours
These include the local school and the area around it, the sports fields, parts of a park, and some residential areas. A private security firm has been employed to run the asylum centre and to ensure the asylum seekers stay within the areas permitted to them.
Under Swiss law the village is technically not allowed to restrict movement, but Alpnach’s mayor Kathrin Doenni expects the asylum seekers to obey. She believes the measures will reassure a local population unsure of what is to come.
“There’s something unknown coming to our village,” she explains.
“Asylum seekers…we don’t know what people are coming, we don’t know how they behave, we don’t know if they are doing something that’s against the law.”
So what exactly does she believe could go wrong?
“Could there be a conflict with asylum seekers getting in contact with school children for example?” she suggests.
Every country has crime, and Switzerland is no exception. And among those committing crimes, there are some asylum seekers. Although statistics show they are a minority among all those applying for asylum, many Swiss citizens are not reassured.
Amnesty International’s Denise Graf: “This is not the right way to accept asylum seekers”
It is a source of frustration to Samson Kidane from Eritrea. He fled his country’s forced indefinite military service (a practice condemned by the UN as a human rights violation) and after a harrowing journey across the Sahara desert and the Mediterranean, during which his best friend drowned, he is now a recognised refugee in Switzerland.
“The Swiss need to know we are people just like them,” he says. “With families just like them.”
“We are not criminals. [I think] the Swiss people are very kind people, they are really willing to help refugees, but they need information. Who are refugees? What do they do in Switzerland? Without information, I think there will be a huge gap between refugees and the local people.”
We need to remember that these are human beings”
But it is hard to share information with people who do not seem keen to listen. Other Swiss villages where centres are being opened are introducing restrictions too. In Bremgarten, local officials announced that the swimming pool would be off-limits for asylum seekers, a move Amnesty International said was reminiscent of apartheid.
Still other towns are simply blocking the government’s attempts to house asylum seekers in their districts, using planning permission and land use regulations to stall them.
That leaves the Swiss government with a problem: where to put the asylum seekers? Former army bunkers in the mountains are one solution, although the Swiss Federal Office for Migration admits it is not an ideal one.
A converted WWII military bunker in Realp houses Swiss asylum seekers
Swiss officials admit the use of bunkers is not ideal
Across the Swiss Alps there are many underground military bunkers dating back to World War Two, when Switzerland’s army prepared to fall back to the high mountains and defend their country from there should Germany invade.
Today, several are in use as asylum centres. One such is at Realp, at an altitude of almost 2,000 metres. Among those housed there is Marwan, who says he is from Syria.
“I didn’t expect that we are going to be isolated in this place,” he says. “I thought that maybe I [would] have the chance to meet Swiss people, to get to know Swiss culture, to learn German and French.”
Marwan is also unhappy about what he says are cramped conditions inside the underground bunker, where he says the occupants, all men, sleep “twelve to a room”.
He and the other asylum seekers are expected to be inside the bunker by 17:00, and to stay there until 09:00 each morning. Although they are allowed to leave for the weekend, Realp is so remote that this is not easy. To pass the time some of the asylum seekers work repairing high mountain paths, for which the Swiss authorities pay them CHF 30 (24 euros/$32) a day.
It is a reasonable amount of money, Marwan says, and it does keep him occupied. Nevertheless for him it is not a viable alternative to getting to know the people and the country in which he has applied for asylum.
His story is complicated. Because he spent time in Italy before coming to Switzerland, he will almost certainly be returned there rather than being given refugee status by the Swiss.
But the occupants of Alpnach’s asylum centre, many of whom will be children, are also going to find it hard to get to know the local people and their customs. And not everyone in Alpnach is comfortable with the restrictions.
Swiss asylum seekers repair a high mountain path in Realp
Swiss asylum seekers repair high mountain paths to pass the time in isolated Realp
“I think we need to remember that these are human beings coming to us,” says local resident Leo Walliman-Durer.
“They are not here for fun; they have had a hard background, maybe a war.”
Just a week ago, the “handbag-gate” scandal in which Oprah Winfrey claimed she was a victim of racism in an upmarket Zurich boutique focused attention on Switzerland and relations with its large population of immigrants and refugees.
Raphael Golta, a socialist member of Zurich’s elected council, believes the worldwide headlines Winfrey’s story created might, once the scandal has died down, serve to focus Swiss attention on a more serious issue.
Mr Golta says the Oprah Winfrey story is “very embarrassing” for Zurich and Switzerland.
“But I think we have to keep in mind that those stories do not only happen to celebrities in luxury shops.”
“It’s more the untold stories of everyday discrimination that we have to think about. And those stories are the real challenge for the cohesion of our society and our country.”