Controversial asylum centre sparks outcry

100 people are to be housed in the concrete bunker (swissinfo) swissinfo

A centre for rejected asylum applicants has opened in a former military bunker in the remote Jaunpass in the Bernese Oberland.

This content was published on June 10, 2004 - 17:09

Refugee groups and residents have mounted fierce opposition to the controversial project – for very different reasons.

On April 1, the federal authorities stopped providing welfare benefits to rejected asylum seekers as part of a cost-cutting exercise.

It is now the responsibility of the cantons to provide emergency aid – a bed and some food – to failed applicants until they leave the country.

Bern’s controversial solution to the problem has been to house rejected asylum seekers in a remote place in the mountains.

The first people moved into the underground concrete bunker on Tuesday. The windowless accommodation houses up to 100 people, including families.

Deliberate choice

Dora Andres, the director of police in Bern, says the choice of location – the Jaunpass, with a population of fewer than 20, three ski lifts, two restaurants and a camping ground – was a deliberate one.

“We know that asylum seekers prefer to be in a town where there are a lot of people,” she told swissinfo. “The asylum seekers we bring up here are ones that should leave Switzerland.”

“By putting them in the country, they will not feel comfortable and they will realise Switzerland doesn’t want them anymore – so they will have to accept the decision and leave,” added Andres.

Andres says that those who hinder the deportation process by refusing to reveal their names or identity papers will also be sent to the Jaunpass. She hopes that the threat of exile to the mountains will be enough to make people more cooperative.

The politician revealed that the accommodation solution, at SFr93 ($75) per day per resident, is over SFr100 cheaper than housing asylum seekers in prison, as has been done in the past.

Slammed

But the new centre – currently in its pilot phase – has been slammed by refugee groups. Jürg Schertenleib, from the non-governmental Swiss Refugee Council, says that canton Bern is setting a “bad example” to other cantons.

“The underground accommodation is rather a measure to scare off rejected asylum seekers than to give them assistance to return to their home countries,” Schertenleib told swissinfo.

“We think most of the asylum seekers concerned would rather prefer to stay in Switzerland illegally than stay in the Jaunpass,” added Schertenleib.

He says up to 1,000 rejected asylum seekers could be affected by the new measures to stop welfare payments.

According to Schertenleib, the problem has been made worse by the legal requirement that cantons pay for emergency aid to rejected applicants.

“What has happened now is that every canton tries to be less attractive than the other in order not to pay emergency aid to those concerned,” he said.

He believes that a more effective solution can be found in offering better incentives to encourage rejected applicants to return to their home countries.

Unpopular

Andres’ plan has also been less than popular with the locals both in the Jaunpass and in neighbouring Boltigen. Some residents fear that the rejected asylum seekers will disrupt their peaceful, rural existence and that they will no longer feel safe.

Others are more concerned about the effects on the tourism industry in the region.

“We’re also afraid of the counterproductive negative headlines,” said Hermann Maurer, vice-president of the municipal council in Boltigen, situated eight kilometres away from the Jaunpass.

Andres says while she understands these concerns, they are largely unfounded.

“There was a lot of fear around because they [local residents] don’t know how to handle the situation, how to have both tourism and a centre for rejected asylum seekers,” she said.

“We could tell them, from other areas where we have centres for refugees, that there is actually no problem. You can have both,” she told swissinfo.

Whether the project is a success for the Bernese authorities will only become clear by the end of the year. The bunker is due to close its doors at the end of October.

swissinfo, Isobel Leybold

Key facts

Recognised refugees in Switzerland at the end of 2003: 24,729.
Asylum seekers provisionally accepted: 24,467.
Asylum seekers waiting for a decision: 41, 272.

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In brief

The canton has the second highest number of asylum seekers in Switzerland after the canton of Zurich.

At the end of April there were 8,300 asylum seekers in canton Bern, 2,900 of whom were accepted provisionally and 2,400 of whom had their applications rejected and must leave Switzerland.

About 60% of those turned down are staying in Bern illegally.

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