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Refuge at a resort


Proposed Laax asylum centre draws protest


By Simon Bradley



The Graubünden resort of Laax has long been a mecca for snowboarders (Keystone)

The Graubünden resort of Laax has long been a mecca for snowboarders

(Keystone)

Laax, a hip ski resort in eastern Switzerland, has found itself at the centre of a storm over asylum seekers. Regional authorities want to offer temporary housing for new asylum seekers but the resort director threatens a tax protest.

Under plans proposed by the canton Graubünden authorities, an old hotel in the chic mountain resort may be used to house up to 100 asylum seekers from July 1.

But the news has sparked local resistance from Reto Gurtner, director of the Weisse Arena Group, which owns most of the mountain bars, shops and major hotels in the resort which has become a magnet for snowboarders.

In an email sent by the 58-year-old director to the communal and cantonal authorities, Gurtner declared that using the hotel, which lies on the outskirts of the village close to the cable car, as an asylum centre should not be accepted “under any conditions”.

He argues that the neighbouring commune of Schluein already welcomes more asylum seekers than all other regions in canton Graubünden and that Laax holiday homes worth a total of SFr3 billion ($3.2 billion) would be threatened by a new housing centre. 

The director, who is also a board member of Graubünden Tourism, threatened not to pay any more cantonal taxes in protest. He told the NZZ newspaper that the canton should share the burden of new asylum seekers – but fairly.

He added: "We should take Australia as an example". His email contained quotes from former Australian Prime Minister John Howard, famous for his strict immigration policy.

Although the email protest was his own initiative, Gurnter has the support of the Laax communal president Toni Camathias.

Christian Rathgeb, a member of the Liberal Party and director of Graubünden’s justice, security and health department, said he understood the questions and fears raised by a possible new asylum centre in Laax.

But he pointed out that the ski resort of Davos in canton Graubünden already had two asylum centres and since they opened there had been no complaints from the resort’s authorities.

A national obligation

Across Switzerland, cantons and communes have been obliged to find temporary accommodation at short notice to house growing numbers of asylum seekers.

Despite an agreement in principle between the federal and cantonal authorities, plans to create additional capacities for 2,000 asylum seekers have run into difficulties because of building regulations, unavailability of military sites and local resistance.

But not all cantons are affected to the same degree and reactions have differed from region to region. German-speaking communes’ resistance to the obligation to welcome small groups of asylum seekers has generally been more acute than in French-speaking Switzerland.

In the light of the Arab Spring and other global developments, Switzerland has seen an increase in the number of new asylum seekers.

Last December, parliament approved additional funds worth SFr97.4 million for asylum. The 2012 budget had been drawn up on the basis of 19,000 annual requests, while the additional credit estimated some 30,000 - the Federal Migration Office said 28,631 asylum requests were actually made in 2012.

However, parliament also tightened Swiss asylum rules in September 2012 to no longer provide refugee status to conscientious objectors and to create special centres for unruly  asylum seekers already in the country. In addition, those seeking asylum may no longer apply at Swiss embassies abroad.

Despite stricter asylum laws, additional funds will be needed in future. It was reported on Tuesday that the federal authorities are due to increase their asylum budget for the 2014-2016 period by SFr100 million from SFr1.29 billion owing to an expected increase in the number of asylum seekers for 2013.

This figure is close to the record SFr1.47 billion in 1999 when the Kosovan war led to a large number of refugees arriving in Switzerland.

By Simon Bradley, swissinfo.ch