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Asylum game withdrawn after protests

Critics say the plight of asylum seekers is not a game

(Keystone)

A new computer game in which players take on the role of asylum seekers has been withdrawn by the Swiss Federal Office for Refugees.

Around 20,000 people a day were logging on to the Internet to play "Swiss Checkin", which was devised by the government to raise awareness about asylum seekers.

However, the game was scrapped on Thursday, following protests from non-governmental organisations.

Jurg Schertenleib of the Swiss Refugee Council told swissinfo that Swiss Checkin was simply too superficial.

"Asking for asylum in Switzerland, or in any European country, is not a game," he said.

"Life is not a game, and especially not for refugees who have suffered torture and persecution."

Tough choice

Players were asked to choose from six potential asylum seekers: there was Celestina from Angola, whose family were all killed in the civil war and whose violent husband was trying to force her into prostitution.

Or Bagram, an ethnic Albanian from Kosovo, who was being persecuted by his neighbours because he worked for a company run by Serbs.

All six characters were based on real cases that staff at the Federal Refugee Office had dealt with in the past.

When a player chose a character, he or she had the option of learning about the asylum seeker's home country and how tough life was there.

Sibylle Siegwart, who invented Swiss Checkin, said her aim was to give people a better idea of just how hard life can be for people fleeing their own countries.

"There's a lot of wrong information out there about asylum seekers," Siegwart told swissinfo. "So we looked around for a way to reach people in a more playful way."

Tasteless options

But Schertenleib said he was incensed by some of the options the game presented to players.

Before starting on their journey, for example, players also chose five objects to take with them.

On offer were real and false identity papers, money, illegal drugs, weapons, a sleeping bag, medicines, books, a child, or a wife.

"I don't consider a wife or child to be objects," said Schertenleib. "And, in any case, I don't believe that real asylum seekers have choices like this."

Schertenleib believes there are better ways to overcome prejudices about asylum seekers.

"We have our own schools project, in which school children meet a real refugee, face to face, and hear the real story of what he or she suffered. This project is a big success," he said.

Reality too complex

Sibylle Siegwart agreed that the game was not exactly the same as reality, but said it had generated a very positive response from players.

"The feedback was great, especially from young people. They said it was really cool," she said.

"Obviously we wanted to stick to reality, but that is very difficult. Reality is much more complex.

"It's a difficult balancing act. If it had been too complex, nobody would have played it."

The Federal Office for Refugees pointed out that during the time Swiss Checkin was online, the department's own homepage received a record 240,000 visits.

Officials said this suggested that players of the game were also taking the opportunity to find out more about Swiss asylum policy.

Tedium and temptation

And it's certainly true that those who played Swiss Checkin got a very clear picture of how miserable life can be for asylum seekers once they get to Switzerland and are waiting for the authorities to decide on their claim.

Many wait months in hostels, with no work and no income. Swiss Checkin provided a very accurate picture of a life which is part tedium, part temptation.

"During this time they have the option to do something good for Switzerland, or they can learn a language," explained Siegwart.

"But they also have the chance to do bad things: they can steal or turn to prostitution."

Crime and punishment

Should a player have opted for a life of crime, however, the virtual Swiss police were on the scene very quickly, and it was "game over" for the would-be asylum seeker.

"We wanted to show that it is really hard to get asylum in Switzerland," said Siegwart. "And we also wanted to show that you have to behave."

Anyone who has spent the last few weeks playing Swiss Checkin will know only too well how hard it is to get asylum in Switzerland.

Of the six asylum seekers to choose from, only one had a genuine claim for refugee status, and all the rest were doomed to be rejected, however well they behaved.

swissinfo, Imogen Foulkes

In brief

Switzerland has traditionally operated a very generous refugee policy, but in recent years, as in other European countries, the issue of asylum seekers has become controversial.

Around 20,000 people a day were playing the Federal Refugee Office's game "Swiss Checkin", before it was withdrawn after protests from non-governmental organisations.

The Refugee Office had hoped the game would raise awareness of the difficult life of asylum seekers, but the Swiss Refugee Council said the game was superficial, and nothing like reality.

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