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Asylum debate “forgets” those in need

Asylum seekers are held in reception centres while their applications are considered Keystone

Asylum has become a highly politicised issue all over Europe, with critics saying the needs of genuine refugees seem to have been forgotten.

Switzerland’s debate over whether to tighten up its laws on asylum has managed to confuse asylum seekers, illegal immigrants, and the country’s permanent foreign community, it is claimed.

The initiative from the Swiss People’s Party proposes that asylum seekers who have passed through another safe country before arriving at the Swiss border should not be allowed in to Switzerland.

The People’s Party claims the restrictions would discourage economic migrants, masquerading as asylum seekers, from coming to Switzerland in search of work.

But the legislation would also bar people with a genuine claim to refugee status, like family D, who travelled overland from Iraq to Switzerland four years ago.

From Baghdad to Zurich

The family, who prefer not to have their names revealed because of fears for relatives who remain in Baghdad, travelled through Turkey, Bulgaria, Greece and Italy, before applying for asylum in Switzerland.

“I worked as a veterinary surgeon in Baghdad,” D told swissinfo. “And I helped a charity which tried to aid poor and sick people; the ones worst affected by the sanctions.”

Canadian and Australian doctors supported this charity too, and when they arrived in Baghdad to look at local hospitals, D was arrested by the secret police, held for ten days, and then forced to sign a document agreeing to spy on the foreigners. For him it was the signal to leave.

“If you know anything about Iraq,” he explained, “you’ll know that if you have problems with the secret police, it’s the end. A lot of people, a lot of families, have died for nothing.”

The family – father, mother, and three small boys aged three, four, and six – travelled through northern Iraq and from there crossed the border illegally into Turkey. In Istanbul, D found a people smuggler, who agreed to make false passports for them, and drive them to Switzerland, for a fee of $18,000.

Swiss goal

“Before I left Iraq, I didn’t know anything about asylum really,” said D. “But I knew that Switzerland was a neutral country, and that it had the home of human rights in Geneva, so Switzerland was our goal.”

The D family were in fact granted refugee status in Switzerland fairly quickly, once the Swiss authorities had verified their story. So their right to asylum under the Geneva Convention is unquestionable.

Nevertheless, if the People’s Party initiative is approved, families like them would no longer be granted asylum in Switzerland.

“I don’t think the Swiss people will support this proposal,” said D. “Because it would stop a lot of people who are in danger from finding safety here, and I don’t think the Swiss want that. I know lots of Swiss who have told me they will vote against.”

And D has faith that the anti-foreigner sentiments that have marred the debate about the initiative are the expressions of only a small minority of voters.

“The Swiss are not racist people,” he said. “By its very nature, Switzerland is a very open and tolerant country. They have the German speakers, the French speakers, the Italian speakers and the Romansh, and they all live together. I think Switzerland is more open to different peoples than other countries.”

No recipe for happiness

Nevertheless, contrary to what many people believe, life as a refugee is not easy, and being granted the right to live in a wealthy western European country such as Switzerland is not the recipe for perfect happiness.

“I don’t know if there really is ‘happy happy’ for us,” said D’s wife. “We are safe here; my husband is safe, the children are safe. But I miss Iraq. I miss my mother, I miss my house, I miss everything. And I can’t forget, I just can’t.”

And D agrees that for refugees like himself, too much has been left behind for his new life in Switzerland to be a really happy one.

“I think a man can forget happiness once he has to leave his home,” he said. “Life in Switzerland is better than life in Iraq, you can feel the freedom here.

“But I’m not a Swiss man, I’m an Iraqi man and my home is there. My family is there, and all my memories are there.”


There are currently over 26,000 recognised refugees in Switzerland.
Most of them arrived in Switzerland by land, and therefore travelled through another safe country on their way.
Around ten per cent of all applications for refugee status are approved in Switzerland.
Up to a further 50 per cent of asylum seekers are granted temporary residency, because they are fleeing civil wars in their own countries rather than individual persecution.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR