Thousands of Somalis have made their way to Switzerland, leaving their homeland behind because of armed conflict and the additional threats of drought and famine. But finding their place is far from easy, even if help is at hand.
Somali asylum seekers have to deal with a difficult situation, having only been provisionally admitted on Swiss soil and their integration proving difficult. Finding a job is also an obstacle course.
But despite all the hurdles, more and more are making their way to Switzerland, with over 4,000 calling it home at least temporarily by the end of 2010. Nearly 3,600 were granted temporary admission, but 700 more were still in administrative limbo. Less than 5% of all Somali requests for asylum were accepted in 2011.
“Many Somalis continue to flee their country because danger is everywhere,” said Mohamed Ali, president of the Somalie Modulud association in canton Vaud.
Over the past two years, the situation has worsened in the centre and south of Somalia, notably because tribal conflicts and tensions between political parties appeared after the intervention of Ethiopian troops. The creation of a transition government and the departure of the foreign soldiers only made matters worse.
“Armed militias do not hesitate to launch suicide attacks against mosques and schools, or against African peacekeepers, something that never happened before,” said Swiss researcher Peter Meyer, who has written reports on the situation for the Swiss Refugee Council.
Family or tribal ties help decide where the refugees choose to go. Joëlle Morey, a researcher at the University of Neuchâtel’s Center for the Understanding of Social Processes, says that it is rare for Somalis to come to Switzerland if they don’t have any family there already, much like in Britain, the Netherlands or Germany.
Most Somalis who have arrived in Switzerland in recent years are young. “Fathers who are worried about their sons’ future encourage them to leave,” Ali admits.
Leyla Kaniari is one of those young immigrants. Born into a rich family, she fled her homeland to join her husband in Kenya after a bomb explosion near her home in Mogadishu in 1991. She was 18 and had a five-month-old daughter.
“In the beginning we were headed for London, but the person accompanying us told us the best route was the one to Switzerland,” she said. Today she lives with her five children in St Gallen, a place she now calls “home”.
Swiss culture shock: Somali women recount integration journey
Under Swiss legislation, refugees can be granted temporary residency, a so-called F permit, but this solution isn’t always as good as it might seem at first glance.
Mohamed Abdi, who arrived in Switzerland in 2008, is a case in point. “This temporary permit saps my confidence. I can’t build a new life and plan a future. I always feel different from others and I need to find huge strength to overcome my concerns,” the 38-year-old Somali told swissinfo.ch.
Abdi says educational aid for refugees is particularly lacking. But Somali refugees have created associations in different cantons over the past two decades to help overcome their problems. They provide aid to the new arrivals and help ease integration.
Other Swiss-based organisations focus on helping Somalis back in their homeland. Rajo, created in 2010 in canton Valais, focuses for example on literacy programmes in the central regions of Mudug and Galguduud.
Abdi, its president, says its aim is to make up for Somali government failures in education matters. Two thousand people benefit from the programmes, 70% of them women.
A safe haven
More than 8,000 Somalis live in Switzerland today – 1,000 have become Swiss citizens. The majority arrived as asylum seekers.
Given the security situation in Somalia, Switzerland does not turn Somali asylum seekers away, but doesn’t grant them refugee status in most cases. The majority are granted temporary residency, with no fixed date for their departure.
Among the Somali population in Switzerland, 55.7% are men and 44.3% women.
Most of those currently filing asylum requests are between 18 and 35 years of age. They come mostly from southern Somalia, a poor region where the education system is considered to be broken down.
The Swisso-Kalmo association, founded in Zurich in 1995, helps provide healthcare, employing 65 people, many of them physicians.
“We are financed by Somalis living in Switzerland, businesspeople, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, UNICEF and the World Food Programme,” explained its president, Bachir Gobdon.
The World Health Organization provides medication as well as medical material and sends doctors in the field. Thanks to United Nations support, Swisso-Kalmo was able to distribute anti-tuberculosis drugs.
The Somali integration association of eastern Switzerland, which receives backing from canton St Gallen, provides support to Somali hospitals by sending drugs, medical material and basic training for those arriving in the country.
“With the Swiss government and the canton’s support, we have been able since 2004 to organise courses to help people understand Swiss laws,” explains Kaniari, who is president of the Somali integration association. “Last year, we even organised classes about the education system and this year we are focusing on the health system.”