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Controversial housing opens for asylum seekers


Containers are being used as emergency accommodation for asylum seekers as Switzerland experiences an influx of new applicants.

The eastern canton of Graubünden has adopted this solution and has set up three containers on a patch of waste ground in the industrial area of Waldau/Landquart, not far from the cantonal capital, Chur.

The first eight occupants have already been in Switzerland for some time, and their request for asylum has been turned down.

The men, four Algerians, three Iranians and an Afghan, all aged between 30 and 40, are waiting to be sent back to their own countries.

For some, this is the last stage in a long saga. Before being moved to the containers they had been accommodated in a holiday home in Valzeina, a hamlet at the top of a mountain overlooking Landquart. Some of them had been there for up to ten months.

Ahmed, a 36 year-old Algerian, had already lived in the canton for several years: he even has a seven-year-old son, born to a Swiss mother.

"It's my son who keeps me here. Otherwise, how could anyone put up with such treatment?" he says.

His friend Moncef, who came to Switzerland six years ago, stays silent, whether because he is weary of the whole business or because he is afraid that anything he says might be used against him.

Making way for new arrivals

It was only on the day before they were moved that the eight were informed of the change in their situation. A letter from the cantonal authorities told them that their beds were needed for new asylum seekers who were about to arrive.

The containers in which they are now housed each measure 2.5 by six metres. Two are sleeping quarters and the other a dining room.

There is a shower and toilet in a nearby hut. They are heated, and there is a corner where the men can cook.

But there are no cupboards for the men's personal effects, no phone, no television and no washing machine.

The men are not allowed to stay there between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. They are given SFr7.30 ($6.25) per day for their food and other needs.

"I never thought I would fall so low," commented Ali, one of the Iranians.

More containers?

The Graubünden Cantonal Police and Civil Rights Office stands by its decision.

"We are applying a strict and consistent asylum policy and it is bearing fruit, since we have not had a major problem in this area in the past few years," Heinz Brand, the head of the office, told swissinfo.

Brand added that if there should be another large influx of asylum seekers, the canton would be prepared to adapt more containers to house rejected applicants.

"They are not dustbins, they are structures people can live in," he said.

"These people can stay there as long as they like," Brand explained, adding that the authorities were not insensitive to humanitarian cases. But he said that the eight men currently living in the containers did not fit into this category.

"A police state"

The Federal Migration Office said it that was unaware of any other cases of containers being used to house asylum seekers.

"It's up to the cantons to decide how to give emergency help, as long as they respect human dignity," migration office spokesman Jonas Montani told swissinfo.

The use of containers has not been welcomed by everyone in Graubünden.

"This canton is a real police state! I cannot understand how you can treat human beings like this," said Daniel Stirnimann-Gentsch of the "Miteinander Valzeina", an aid association for asylum seekers.

"The authorities are hassling these unfortunate people with rules that are both fussy and absurd."

But in general there has been little debate, neither among the public, nor among politicians. Most people appear to support what the authorities have done.

It is thought that other cantons may follow suit.

swissinfo, based on an article in French by Nicole della Pietra in Landquart

Asylum seeker figures

The Federal Migration Office says that a total of 13,000 to 14,000 asylum seekers could arrive in Switzerland in 2008.

Between January and the end of September, 10,351 new asylum requests were submitted - 29.4 per cent more than in the same period last year.

There has been an upsurge in arrivals since June.

The countries creating proportionally the largest number of asylum seekers are Somalia, Eritrea, Iraq and Sri Lanka.

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