Good Samaritan tends to illegal immigrants

A hot meal and a bed for the night are all rejected asylum seekers can hope for Keystone

With temperatures well below zero in early March, rejected asylum seekers in Basel experienced for themselves how cold a Swiss winter can be.

This content was published on March 16, 2005 - 09:55

Their applications turned down by the authorities, and with no work or place to go, these mainly black African illegal immigrants had nothing to do but walk the streets, trying to keep warm.

Peter, 20, from Sudan has been in Switzerland since August, and faces deportation. Shivering in his short jacket he told swissinfo that his asylum application had been turned down almost straight away, as he had no papers.

An unwelcome visitor to Switzerland, Peter said he had spent most of the past eight months in detention. Released from his prison cell, he had spent nights on the streets or huddled in telephone booths.

Peter’s plight is fairly typical, according to Roman Catholic priest Ruedi Beck, whose parish in Basel has been providing succour and shelter for Peter and others like him.

Since the federal authorities cut benefits to rejected asylum seekers on April 1 last year, Beck’s church, St Joseph’s, has received a steady stream of requests for help. That stream turned into a flood with the onset of winter.

St Joseph’s has rented a flat to provide temporary accommodation for the asylum seekers, who come knocking at the door. It also provides food, which the men cook for themselves.

Under the terms of the law, illegal immigrants awaiting repatriation are entitled to only basic "emergency help" from the canton in which they find themselves. The cantons themselves have the power to decide on the extent of this provision and indeed whether to grant it or not.

Personal risk

Beck, 41, knows that he risks criminal prosecution for infringing the law on assistance to illegal immigrants. But for him, there is no other way.

"If I exclude other people, I cannot have a real relationship with God," he says.

Beck says his involvement with the illegal immigrants began a year ago when the law on rejected asylum seekers was tightened and social benefits were lifted.

"Many people started to come to us, who had nothing to eat and spent nights sleeping outdoors," he told swissinfo. "When winter arrived it was terrible. There are people who have to spend the night half frozen in telephone booths or toilets or in the back of trucks."

"It’s clear that when people come here with big problems, we have to help them."

Beck explains that there are on average ten people at a time living in the rented flat, which is in an undisclosed location.

"They stay for two to three weeks and cook for themselves," said Beck. "Once a week they see a counsellor who advises them about whether they can receive emergency assistance from the local authorities."

Although he runs a risk of imprisonment, Beck says he and his social workers are only doing what the local authorities have failed to do.

He is convinced that without the assistance offered by the Church and concerned individuals, many illegal immigrants would remain on the streets or become involved in crime, such as drug dealing.

Emergency provision

The problem of illegal immigrants is particularly acute in Basel, which is the first point of entry for many would-be asylum applicants entering Switzerland. The city also houses one of the country’s four reception centres for asylum seekers.

Applicants rejected by other cantons often end up going underground in Basel, says Beck. There they meet up with others from the same country and often form communities. Women tend to be taken care of by the community, but young men are left aimlessly walking the streets.

The Basel suburb of Muttenz is one local authority which provides emergency assistance to rejected asylum seekers. Around two dozen black African men are provided with shelter and meals in portable cabins concealed behind high wire fencing.

Normally the men are evicted after breakfast at 7am and not readmitted until 4pm. But as temperatures plunged in early March, the authorities took the decision to open the centre all day.

Peter and his comrades welcomed the announcement but pointed out that conditions in the centre were far from ideal. The meals were inadequate and the men were constantly hungry, they said.

"The food is closer to what they give to dogs in this country," Peter complained. "Some of us are not well and this food is not good for us.

"We are merely existing here."

swissinfo, Morven McLean

Key facts

In 2004, there were 14,248 applications for asylum in Switzerland, 32.3% less than in 2003.
Asylum was granted to 1,555 people.
A further 10,080 had their applications rejected.

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In brief

Swiss churches have reported an increase in requests for help from rejected asylum seekers since welfare benefits were lifted on April 1, 2004.

The vicar-general of Basel, Roland-Bernard Trauffer, has criticised the tougher legislation.

The Federal Migration Office has asked him to collate information on the impact on failed asylum seekers.

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