Eritreans who once wound scarves around their faces to protect against the heat and dust of the Sahara, now wrap up warm against Switzerland’s icy temperatures.
Escaping one of the world’s most repressive regimes, Eritreans are fleeing the Horn of Africa in droves. Some 3,356 applied for asylum in Switzerland in 2011, making them the largest group of asylum seekers.
The high numbers of Eritreans contributed to a 45 per cent increase in asylum applications in Switzerland last year – up to a total of 22,551 people – putting massive pressure on a system which is coming under increasing public scrutiny regarding its capacity and efficiency.
Across Switzerland cantons and communes have been obliged to find temporary accommodation at short notice to house the new arrivals – against stiff local resistance.
While the authorities struggle to cope with the basic needs of asylum seekers, voluntary organisations continue to offer support and services to all comers. swissinfo.ch went along to a drop-in centre in the northern Swiss town of Aarau to find out more about the local Eritreans.
Many are deserters or draft dodgers. Others fled political or religious repression. The current Human Rights Watch world report accuses the one-party government of Isaias Afewerki of misusing the national military service system to keep a generation of Eritreans in bondage.
When Amanuel received his call-up papers from the Eritrean army, he tore them up and went into hiding. He knew what to expect; he had older brothers.
“You get maybe one month home leave every two years and it lasts up to [age] 50 or 60. There was no way I could do it. So I went to the forest and stayed there for eight months.”
Through a friend, Amanuel found a way to cross the border into Sudan. He arrived in Switzerland in 2008.
Twenty-four-year-old Amanuel, who now has refugee status and lives in Aarau, is a regular visitor to the drop-in centre run by Netzwerk Asyl (Asylum Network) Aargau. He was able to interpret from Tigrinya to German for his fellow Eritreans.
It’s a friendly place, with different nationalities milling about, attending language classes, chatting, checking email or just having coffee.
Among the Eritreans who spoke to swissinfo.ch on a freezing Tuesday afternoon, was Helen, a soft-spoken mother of five, who recalled the most wonderful day in her life.
“I will never forget it. It was like being in a dark room and then suddenly the light came in.” Helen was referring to the day her two eldest children arrived in Switzerland after having been separated from their parents for three years.
Helen and her husband left the region because of the political situation. They took their two youngest children, aged two and a half and 11 months on a gruelling one-month journey across the Sahara. Then came the crossing from Libya to Italy.
With help from the Swiss charity Caritas, they were finally able to send for the two children who had been left with an uncle in Sudan. Their fifth child was born in Switzerland.
Travel costs are generally covered by the Federal Migration Office, on application with the right documentation. The non-governmental Swiss Refugee Council also has a family reunification fund.
Of the 944 applications submitted by Eritreans to the Federal Migration Office for family reunification in 2011 (up to December 15), more than two-thirds have been approved, while 190 cases are still pending.
Amanuel also spent a month crossing the Sahara, an experience he describes as unbelievable. He was one of 40 men and women who travelled on the back of a pick-up truck.
“The car broke down. We had not much to eat and drink. We had a water tank, 20 litres, but we put petrol in it because without the petrol taste we would drink too much. That’s how it was.”
“Two or three” people died on the way, he’s not sure how. “When people die I don’t want to know, it’s difficult. But probably from hunger and thirst.”
The sea crossing from Tripoli to the Italian island of Lampedusa was organised by a Libyan middleman.
“There wasn’t enough room [on the boat] but luckily we made it to Lampedusa. There are 25 or 30 people on these small boats. If you are lucky you make it, if not you end up in the water.”
Although the refugees have put thousands of kilometres between themselves and their homeland, the regime still has a hold on many of them.
A 2010 Federal Migration Office report on the Somali and Eritrean population in Switzerland mentioned an obligatory two per cent income tax imposed on exiles through the Eritrean embassy.
“The tax is taken in the name of national development and represents an enormous source of income for the government,” the report stated.
Those who don’t pay lose the right to buy land or carry out other business in Eritrea as well as being denied access to consular services. The majority of Eritreans resident in Switzerland pay the tax, possibly as a way of avoiding trouble but a “considerable proportion of the new arrivals (since 2001) refuse [to pay the tax]”.
People like Amanuel: “Me, I am not stupid. Why would I do that? I don’t know why the others do it. They are thinking about the future maybe, about going back to Eritrea if it stays like this. But if it stays like this no one is going back.”
Meanwhile, following recent media coverage, the Federal Criminal Police is investigating reports of racketeering and intimidation within the Eritrean community allegedly carried out by bogus asylum seekers planted by the regime.
Justified or not, the fear that is so deeply engrained in daily life under Afewerki’s regime has followed many refugees to Switzerland.
Eritrea has been an independent country since 1993, although fighting continues with Ethiopia along the internationally recognised border (disputed by Ethiopia).
Former freedom fighter President Isaias Afewerki has militarised the land to a high degree and concentrated power in his hands and those of the PFDJ (People’s Front for Democracy and Justice).
There is no freedom of press or expression.
Citizens suffer arbitrary and indefinite detention; torture; inhumane conditions of confinement; restrictions on freedom of speech, movement and belief; and indefinite conscription and forced labour in national service.
Military service is indefinitely prolonged, extending for much of a citizen’s working life. Pay is barely sufficient for survival.
Source “World Report 2012” – Human Rights Watch
Refugees and asylum seekers
While the majority of refugees end up in neighbouring Sudan or flee eastwards across the Gulf of Aden, some set their sights on Europe, crossing the Sahara through Sudan and Libya and taking a boat across the Mediterranean.
The worldwide Eritrean diaspora numbers more than a million people.
Three-quarters of the Eritrean asylum applications processed in Switzerland last year were accepted. In January 2012 it was over 85 per cent.
The Federal Court has ruled that army deserters must be given asylum.
The Migration Office told swissinfo.ch that applications were examined on a case by case basis. Of those not given asylum, some are given provisional permission to stay.
The others are ordered to leave the country within a certain time, but are not sent home.
January '12 figures
At 2,653, the highest number per month for 10 years and double the January 2011 total.
Top nationalities: Eritreans (370); Serbians (315); Tunisians (249)