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Shelter on the Rigi Asylum seekers ‘vacation’ on Swiss mountain

The Rigi's many panoramas attract hundreds of thousands of tourists each year, as well as skiers during the winter months when it's covered in snow


A group of asylum seekers has been temporarily housed on one of Switzerland’s most iconic mountains, the Rigi. The authorities say it’s a good setting to help them integrate while critics dubbed the choice “a vacation”. 

For the young men given shelter there, it feels more like limbo as they wait to hear whether the country they’re trying hard to understand will remain their home. 

A train groaning with tourists chugs up a steep cogwheel track, smartphones hanging out of windows capturing every meadow and peak. It’s making its way up the so-called “queen of the mountains,” once described by American author Mark Twain as “an imposing Alpine mass, six thousand feet high, which stands by itself, and commands a mighty prospect of blue lakes, green valleys, and snowy mountains”.

The Rigi cogwheel train is the oldest in Switzerland


About two-thirds of the way to the top, the train stops at a cluster of houses and hotels known as Rigi Klösterli. This morning, a group of hikers gets out along with an elderly man who bears a resemblance to Twain, with flowing white hair and round spectacles. 

He isn’t going for a walk. His destination is a large house, at the end of a steep path marked by streamers and handmade signs proclaiming “welcome to our party!”. The sign is written not only in German, but in Farsi and Urdu too.

The man and other guests are greeted at the door by a line of well-dressed young men speaking their best, carefully pronounced German. 

They are asylum seekers, mostly from Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Iran, who were re-located to this remote spot for three months to get a crash course in Swiss life and await news of whether they’ll be allowed to stay. But when the choice of this house – usually used for ski groups and camps – to take in up to 50 asylum seekers became known, there was some public backlash. 

“It’s great that asylum seekers can now also have a vacation in a beautiful setting” was one tongue-in-cheek comment printed in the local press. Another accused the federal government of wanting “to destroy tourism in central Switzerland”. 

But a short supply of available housing in canton Schwyz, where the Rigi is located, meant local authorities had to scramble to find suitable places when the federal government told the cantons to prepare for an increase in asylum seekers. 

Among the locals in attendance at the asylum centre open house is Markus Blättler, the canton’s director for migration. He says the arrangement on the Rigi turned out well despite people “not being overjoyed” at the prospect. His job was to prepare the asylum seekers for life in Switzerland and to avoid putting them in underground bunkers – a controversial decision taken in some parts of the country. 

“We’re here during the off-season, not peak tourist season, and we involved the community from the beginning, including the important players like the railways and people who live in Rigi Klösterli,” he says, noting that the house will only be used as an asylum centre from March to May.

“We teach the asylum seekers how much it costs to live in Switzerland, and what you need to make to support a family,” Blättler said. “We don’t sell dreams, only goals. You can have dreams, but there is a lot of work behind them.” 

The crowd gathered on the Rigi grows quiet as Prasanth, an asylum seeker from Sri Lanka, delivers a carefully prepared speech about his time in Switzerland so far and his hopes for the future. 

He lived for a time at a fast-track asylum centre in Zurich that will become the norm if an upcoming nationwide referendum passes. His first two interviews with authorities took place within a month, but he is still waiting on a final decision. He tells that he supports speeding up the process as much as possible.

“Everybody has the same mentality, what’s going to happen next, what will happen when we get accepted or rejected? Despite all that, we have fun here with good people. We are happy here.”

Next, the guests are ushered inside for a performance. The man resembling Mark Twain stands alone in the centre of the room, turns on a small sound system and belts out an opera aria, waving his hands to the music. His name is Kirchmeier, and he is a professional singer who lives on the Rigi. He has been coming for afternoon tea with the asylum seekers and wanted to be part of their celebration.

On the wall behind him hangs a painting made by Vijay, a 21-year-old Sri Lankan who used to make murals in his home country. Thanks to another local who gave him paint supplies, he stayed up until three in the morning finishing this piece for the party. 

Vijay's painting


Vijay also doesn’t yet know whether he will be allowed to stay in Switzerland. 

But he’s gotten used to life up here, even though the steep train ride terrified him at first.

“Like a child, I closed my eyes and took my friend’s hand. But after three or four days it was okay.”

Once, he says, he missed the last train up the mountain and had to walk in pitch darkness for two hours. 

“It was awesome,” he grins. “Like man versus wild.”

The Rigi cogwheel train, the oldest mountain railway in Switzerland, is the only way to access the asylum centre. Blättler says canton Schwyz paid a flat rate to the Rigi railways to let the asylum seekers ride - but they aren’t always free to go down the mountain. There are German classes to attend, and chores to be done.

Schwyz is one of a handful of Swiss cantons that provides intensive German instruction to all asylum seekers in their care, explains Christina Mattli, the language teacher at the Rigi asylum centre.

“It gives structure to the day, and if they are motivated they have something to do in their free time. And here, when it snows and is cold, what else is there to do?”

Prasanth agrees; he says that when he first saw the house at Rigi Klösterli, he wondered where on earth he had landed, with no shops or infrastructure around.

“But after some time passed, we felt good here. It’s a good place to learn German very fast.” 

After lunch, it’s time for performances from the asylum seekers, who look to their teacher for approval as they act out an Afghan joke in German. The crowd laughs as they deliver the punch line, and they’re thrilled. 

Later, there’s traditional dancing from Iran and Afghanistan. 

But amid the celebration are signs of a life left behind: a map drawn by a young Afghan showing his route from Kabul to Iran, Istanbul, then through the Balkans to Switzerland. Essays written as a German exercise displayed on a table, all of them containing the phrase “Ich vermisse meine Familie” – I miss my family. And one young man from Afghanistan who huddles away from the group, glumly checking his smartphone for messages from home.

Asylum reforms up for a vote

 A proposed change to the country’s asylum law, which the Swiss people will vote on June 5, aims to speed up the procedure for granting or refusing political asylum, reducing times taken for deportation where the decision is negative, and for integration into the labour market of those allowed to stay.

In future, simpler procedures – for cases which need no particular verification steps or which come under the jurisdiction of another state signatory to the Dublin agreement – should not take more than 140 days on average, as compared to 400 days at the moment.

More complex procedures – such as where there are appeals – should not take longer than a year; they now take about two years.

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Contact the author of this article on Twitter: @vdevoreexternal link

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