Asylum seekers rescued from mountainside

The family got caught in the snowy, freezing conditions near the summit of Monte Lema

A Ukrainian family of six, lightly clothed and in some cases barefoot, has been rescued after illegally trying to cross the Alps into Switzerland.

This content was published on January 21, 2008 - 13:40

The asylum seekers, including four children, had got lost near Monte Lema in the Italian-speaking southern canton of Ticino. Some suffered severe frostbite.

According to the Ticino police, the family was saved by the fact they were carrying a walkie-talkie.

Their appeals for help in English were picked up by an Italian amateur radio enthusiast, who alerted the police in Ticino on Sunday.

The Ticino justice authorities announced on Monday that they have started an investigation into the incident.

"The enquiry will try to establish whether a smuggling organisation helped this family to reach Ticino," Marco Bordoli, spokesman for the Ticino police, told the Swiss news agency. It is believed that a gang is in operation on the Swiss-Italian border.

The Ticino police said that the family had unsuccessfully tried to enter Switzerland via the border railway station in Chiasso last week, but they were turned back because they did not have the right documents.

Two requests for asylum filed by the family were rejected by the Swiss authorities last year.

The Ukrainians, a mother of 47, her 21-year-old son, and four other children between the ages of nine and 15, were found in the late afternoon and taken to safety by helicopter.


Three were suffering from frostbite. None are in a life threatening condition, but the nine year old is at risk of having a foot amputated.

The incident is reminiscent of a similar case 20 years ago when a smuggler took a Turkish Kurdish asylum seeker family across the Splügen Pass in freezing conditions. The seven-year-old son later died from exhaustion.

This was made into a Swiss film, "Reise der Hoffnung" (Journey of Hope), which won the Oscar for the Best Foreign Film in 1991.

Yann Golay, spokesman for the non-governmental Swiss Refugee Council, said that it was not unusual for people to try to cross the border at non-guarded points.

"A large number of asylum seekers coming to Switzerland and other European countries do this illegally and in many cases people travel at risk and some die every year," he told swissinfo.

Border checks

It is not known exactly how many people reach Switzerland this way. However, in the first half of last year Swiss border officials said they had apprehended 4,991 people trying to cross the green border illegally – about twice as many as in the first six months of 2006.

More than half were caught in the Geneva region bordering France. Officials also said they detained about twice as many human smugglers during the same period.

Golay said the issue of green borders was very much a topical one following the introduction of the agency Frontex, which promotes frontier cooperation between European Union countries, and includes checks on Swiss borders.

The Ukrainian family has already announced its intention to ask for asylum after having a request denied in Hungary, according to the Ticino police. But its reasons are not yet known.

Jonas Montani, spokesman for the Federal Migration Office, said that Switzerland did not normally receive many asylum requests from Ukraine.

"There were 21 asylum requests from people from Ukraine in 2007, which is a very small number," he told swissinfo. All were rejected, he added.

Golay said Ukraine was generally a quiet country where torture was not known to be widespread.

swissinfo, Isobel Leybold-Johnson and agencies

Seeking asylum

According to the Federal Migration Office, the immigration of foreign workers can be steered by the implementation of quotas, but this is not possible with asylum seekers.

Most adults seeking shelter in European Union or European Free Trade Area (Efta) states know that only qualified specialists from understaffed professions are able to obtain residence permits in these countries. They also know that there is not much point claiming asylum at a Swiss border post: being on the territory of a neighbouring state, they are already in a safe third country.

For this reason, the majority of asylum seekers enter Switzerland illegally, says the federal office. As of November 2007, there were 40,934 people in the legal asylum process, mainly from Balkan, Middle Eastern and African countries.

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