Syrian refugees arrive in Switzerland

Beds have been put aside for Syrian refugees Keystone

A family of 36 Syrians has arrived in Switzerland as part of a United Nations resettlement programme in the aftermath of the unrest in their homeland. The refugees are on their way to canton Bern after the last relatives landed in Geneva on Wednesday morning.

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This is the largest group of refugees to be accepted since the 1990s, when the Balkan conflict was raging.

The family was classified as especially vulnerable by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a spokeswoman for the Federal Migration Office told the Swiss News Agency. Their arrival follows Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga’s springtime promise that Switzerland would welcome a certain number of refugees from Syria.

According to the migration office, the 36 refugees were granted asylum upon arrival in Switzerland as well as residence permits for canton Bern.

More to come

Justice minister Sommaruga has the power to decide whether to accept groups of up to 100 people. The applications of another 40 Syrian refugees are currently under consideration.

However, the total number that Switzerland has agreed to accept has not been made public. Susin Park, head of the Swiss UNHCR office, said this was because a number of Syrians had already been living in Switzerland before the conflict began. During the first six months of 2012, 777 Syrians applied for asylum.

Those arriving now will live in a settlement organised by the UNHCR. There are 17 adults and 19 children. They will attend integration and German courses to make it easier for them to live in Switzerland.

“It’s a protective tool; there is also the question of finding a lasting solution for the refugees,” Park said.

Switzerland has participated in the UNHCR’s resettlement programme since the 1950s. This is the first major refugee quota accepted by Switzerland since the suspension of the quota policy in 1995 and its formal abandonment in 1998. After the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, many refugees applied for asylum independently.

Since 2005, Switzerland has been accepting small groups of refugees at the request of the UNHCR.

Just the start

The Swiss Refugee Council has welcomed the sheltering of the first 36 Syrians as a step in the right direction, but says that more needs to be done considering the magnitude of the situation.

Council head Beat Meiner told the Swiss News Agency that it was important to further develop the refugee quota policies. He suggested that there be a set amount budgeted for new settlements or for the UNHCR to use on site.

“Quota policies shouldn’t be questioned constantly; they should be an integral part of asylum policy,” Meiner said, pointing out that this would help cement Switzerland’s much-cited humanitarian tradition.

A scandal?

The Swiss People’s Party, on the other hand, described the arrival of the refugees as “incomprehensible and scandalous” in a Wednesday media release. The rightwing party blamed Sommaruga and her predecessor Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf for the fact that the number of asylum applications had tripled in the last five years.

Swiss asylum policy has been a hot topic, particularly in Parliament, which is considering changes to the current law. In June, the House of Representatives voted to reduce welfare payments to asylum seekers. An alliance of rightwing and centre-right parties also voted to restrict refugees’ rights to invite family members to join them in Switzerland. The bill now returns to the Senate to consider the latest amendments.

The situation in Syria

The Syrian revolt began in March 2011 with mostly peaceful protests, but a government crackdown led many in the opposition to take up arms. The uprising has since mutated into a civil war.

In a speech on June 26, the Syrian president said the country was now "at war" and that all sectors of the government and country must devote their energies to the war effort.

The UN has said more than 18,000 people have died in Syria since the beginning of the uprising. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (OSDH), more than 26,000 people have been killed, including 18,800 civilians, 1,000 defected soldiers and over 6,500 members of the Syrian armed and security forces.

The UN says 265,000 refugees have fled the conflict in Syria to neighbouring countries in the past 17 months. More than 100,000 Syrians fled their country in August, the highest total since the crisis began and triple the number for July; an estimated 2.5 million people need humanitarian assistance inside the country.

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