The number of asylum seekers who “disappear” before their cases are processed is growing. Some are given shelter by concerned citizens, who risk prosecution to help.
It is a double flight for those who have left their own country and made it to Switzerland, only to go underground and live in fear of discovery by the Swiss authorities.
Those who take their chances and disappear have usually received a negative decision on their asylum application or find their request is not being considered.
Instead of leaving Switzerland voluntarily or awaiting forced deportation, they opt to go underground, joining the ranks of the “sans papiers” or undocumented illegal immigrants, a growing community in Switzerland, estimated to number around 100,000.
Many do not wait for a definite decision from the authorities: In 2011, according to the Federal Migration Office, 12.7 per cent of applicants, or 2,607 people, disappeared while their cases were being processed. In 2010 the rate was 12 per cent, compared with nine per cent in 2008.
According to the migration office, the cases involve people who are aware they have a high likelihood of getting a negative decision. Most of this group leave Switzerland.
Asylum seekers who are in the system are not classified as criminals, according to the migration office, and are therefore free in principle to move around.
“It is often people who could be sent back to another country under the terms of the Dublin Accord,” said Balthasar Staehelin, responsible for aid to asylum seekers at the social aid institution Geneva General Hospice.
The accord, in force since 2008, provides that asylum seekers in Europe can be sent back to the first country they were registered in.
“Officially they are going through the procedure but they know that they have no chance to be allowed to stay in Switzerland. And because the procedure lasts so long, they have plenty of time to disappear without a trace,” Staehelin said.
He added that practically nothing was known about their fate. “There are no studies into what they do and where they go.”
It is almost exclusively young men without families who disappear, according to Moreno Casasola from the Solidarity Without Frontiers association. “They look for accommodation and work in factories or on building sites. Women tend to look for work in the cleaning sector.”
It is relatively difficult for someone without documents to find accommodation. Some can count on Beat (not his real name), a man in his mid-thirties from Bern, who has offered a dozen people a roof over their heads, in defiance of the law.
“You risk a fine and up to one year in prison for providing illegal accommodation,” Beat told swissinfo.ch.
However he is not concerned about the sanctions under the law on foreigners. “I do it merely to help people in need, and I believe that I’m doing the right thing.”
Together with a group of like-minded people, Beat has made rooms ready in a building on the outskirts of Bern. “There are three people living here from North Africa, who have been in Switzerland for a few years. I got to know one of them by chance at a football match.”
These undocumented men live a more or less independent life, according to Beat. “They try to organise themselves and are constantly searching for work. For example they find jobs in moving companies or restaurants that don’t ask for a permit.”
Occasionally Beat helps out with a few francs but financial support is the exception. “Normally they don’t accept money. Maybe it’s a question of honour, or they don’t want to exploit our altruism. They only want to organise their own lives.”
Fear of police
In Zurich, Basel and Bern, Beat knows of other people who take undocumented immigrants into their homes. “It’s just like a house or apartment share, only without rent being paid. They help instead with the household.”
Beat also used to put up sans papiers in his own apartment. “Some only stayed for a couple of days, others became friends of mine.” The saddest memory he has is of one person who disappeared unexpectedly while staying at his apartment.
“It was only later that I learned he ended up in prison after he was picked up in a police check. It pains me to think that someone is locked up who has done nothing bad.”
Mostly he is struck by “their great insecurity and lack of prospects”.
“They never know what might happen to them when they leave the house. This feeling of fear is particularly marked in asylum seekers. They have been registered by the authorities and it is much harder for them to stay underground. They are under constant pressure.”
Beat’s apartment is too small now to accommodate other people. “Sometimes I meet old acquaintances on the street,” he says. The most moving moment he experienced was when he met someone he had offered a safe house to during his time as a student in Fribourg.
“He told me he was no longer undocumented, that he had been able to regularise his situation. I felt proud to have helped someone to be able to lead a normal life.”
In 2011 there were 22,551 asylum applications in Switzerland
That represents a 44.9% increase on 2010 and is the highest figure since 2002.
The top three nationalities for applicants were Eritrean (3,356), Tunisian (2,574) and Nigerian (1,895).
The increase in the number of asylum seekers is connected to the upheaval last year in North African countries.
In 2011 3,711 people were granted asylum, compared with 3,449 in 2010.
(Source: Federal Migration Office)
Estimates for the numbers of illegal immigrants or “sans papiers” living in Switzerland vary from source to source.
According to a 2005 study by the research institute GfS Bern, there were 90,000 people in seven cantons living illegally in Switzerland (20,000 in canton Zurich alone).
The Institute for Migration at Neuchâtel University put the figure at between 70,000 and 180,000 in 2002.
Included in the category of sans papiers are former seasonal workers whose permits have expired, immigrants from outside the EU and asylum seekers whose applications were turned down or not processed, as well as those whose cases were still being assessed.
In 2004 a woman in canton Ticino was convicted of providing a refuge for Ecuadorians.
She sheltered the men for several months at her farm, knowing they did not have the proper papers.
The court found the woman guilty of a “small“ breach of the Law on Foreigners and fined her SFr200 ($218) plus costs.
(Translated by Clare O'Dea), swissinfo.ch