Asylum fears haunt election campaign

Pupils getting a taste of what it's like to be a refugee swissinfo.ch

In the run-up to this weekend’s parliamentary elections, opinion polls show that one of voters’ key concerns is immigration.

This content was published on October 13, 2003 - 10:33

The rightwing Swiss People’s Party has been capitalising on people’s fears, running provocative poster campaigns and calling for tougher measures against asylum seekers.

The message seems to be getting through: a government survey published in August showed nearly half of young adults polled were anti-immigration and in favour of keeping Switzerland free from foreign influences.

“Many people think asylum seekers are just taking advantage of the hospitality they’ve been given here,” Jean-Daniel Favez from the Swiss Refugee Council told swissinfo.

“They think asylum seekers are aggressive, that they are thieves or drug dealers. Some of them are, of course, but the vast majority are not.”

Negative image

Switzerland ranks third in Europe in terms of the number of asylum seekers per head of population.

And even the Swiss authorities admit there is little doubt that some people are abusing the system.

“About half of all asylum applicants from sub-Saharan Africa lie about their country of origin, claiming their homeland is a war zone in a bid to secure political refugee status,” says Dominique Boillat of the Federal Refugee Office.

“Most of these people seem to know very little about the country they profess to stem from. It can take four to five months until identification is officially established. Meanwhile, some of them openly deal in drugs.”

Unfortunately, genuine asylum seekers escaping persecution and political upheaval get tarnished by the same brush.

Asylum reform

According to Boillat, it was these criminal elements that the government targeted in its recent bid to remove state support for asylum seekers who have had their applications turned down.

The Swiss Refugee Council argued that the policy would result in thousands of people being thrown onto the streets, while the People’s Party accused the government of trying to pass on responsibility for asylum seekers to the cantons.

As part of the reform package, the government also wanted to shorten the deadline for appeals.

Eighty per cent of all asylum cases are decided within two months, but the complicated appeals process can last for years.

Even if the end result is expulsion, repatriating immigrants can be tricky. Some African countries refuse to allow asylum seekers back home.

Boillat believes this is because many African economies rely on the money sent home by refugees in Switzerland.

Other countries, such as Iran, will not allow repatriation unless the returnees return home voluntarily - a rare phenomenon.

Awaiting a decision

Asylum seekers effectively receive SFr1,200 per month, and their children SFr1,000 each.

Cantonal governments decide whether funds should be distributed in the form of direct payments, food, clothes or accommodation.

Waiting for months for a decision in a crowded, noisy asylum centre can hardly be described as a picnic.

The Refugee Council is trying to soften attitudes towards asylum seekers, by visiting schools and civil protection centres.

The lecture tours feature simulation exercises, in which teams of students are divided into family groups, whose imaginary village comes under attack.

They are herded away at gunpoint, bundled into a pitch-black room, and forced to pay bribes to facilitate their escape.

Refugees also come to talk to the classes about their own experiences.

Ramadan Veliu, a former human rights campaigner, was forced to flee his native Kosovo under threat of imprisonment by the Serbs.

“Nobody flees voluntarily from his country, his family and friends,” he tells students. “Only if you find yourself in very difficult circumstances would you do this.”

swissinfo, Julie Hunt

Asylum

In a bid to counter hardening attitudes towards immigrants in Switzerland, the Refugee Council is visiting schools and civil protection centres to try to explode some of the myths surrounding asylum seekers.

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Asylum

Switzerland has 546 asylum seekers per 100,000 inhabitants
Only Austria and Norway have more applicants per head of population
Last year more than 26,000 asylum applications were made, up 26.6% on the previous year
The largest group (14%) were from the former Yugoslavia
1,729 people were granted asylum, compared with 2,253 in the previous year

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