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Grappling with a refugee influx from Africa

Many refugees from North Africa arrive on the Italian island of Lampedusa Keystone

As the Libyan ruler, Moammar Gaddafi, appears to lose his grip on the country Europe is preparing for a wave of immigrants from North Africa.

But in an interview with, Denise Efionayi-Mäder of the Swiss Forum for Migration and Population Studies at Neuchâtel University warns against overreacting.

She points out that Europe must not forget the urgent needs of the people in the countries hit by unrest.

With the fall of long-standing regimes in Tunisia and Egypt and what could be the end of Gaddafi’s authoritarian rule, Italy and Spain have called on the EU to provide assistance.

Italy’s interior minister warned that up to one million people could arrive in Europe as a result of the upheaval in the region. The United Nations refugee agency urged the EU to prepare a contingency plan for a worst-case scenario.

Swiss Justice Minister Sommaruga, who was invited to a meeting in Brussels of ministers from the 27-nation bloc, said it was important to support efforts for a coordinated approach.

The two-day meeting, due to end on Friday, was marked by differences of opinion between individual EU member states. How dramatically do you expect the flood of refugees to Europe, and to Switzerland in particular, to increase in the wake of the unrest in North Africa?

Denise Efionayi-Mäder: This is very difficult to say at the moment as it depends on how things develop in the days to come. I think the concerns were a bit exaggerated when the first groups of people arrived in southern Europe. With the crisis in Libya so uncertain it is best to wait to get a clearer picture.

Italy’s reaction in particular seems disproportionate and diverts attention from other issues. If you look at news reports you would think what’s happening around the Mediterranean is a problem for Europe rather than for north Africa. Do you share the concerns of some European governments?

D.E-M.: I am astonished that the focus is on refugees.

It seems a bit premature just to worry about people fleeing when the situation in Tunisia, Egypt and particularly in Libya is serious, with massacres, people getting killed or wounded.

Europe is perfectly capable of dealing with refugees even if their numbers were to increase dramatically.

There are much worse situations, in Africa in particular. Kenya for instance managed to cope with an even larger number of refugees from Somalia in a very short time. Could there be long-term effects from the current crisis?

D.E-M.: Again we have to see how the situation develops. Nobody saw the crisis coming, neither the moment nor the scope of it.

What’s happening in Libya is serious, but I hope it will improve in the future. We have to admit that the deposed rulers and their economic policies were not always beyond reproach.

It might be an opportunity for some countries to set up more democratic governments and pursue a more sustainable and coherent economic policy. What would the impact be on migration?

D.E-M.: Of course, it wouldn’t prevent a flood of refugees when there is a crisis. But the crisis might be only temporary and more or less reversible.

What is crucial in the long term are jobs and a decent quality of life, which would take off the pressure to leave the country. Until now the authorities have contained this pressure, but often by using repressive measures. To what extent should Switzerland participate in coordinated global initiatives?

D.E-M.: Switzerland is part of Europe both geographically and economically. And even if it is not a member of the European Union it is essential for Switzerland to watch EU policy closely, in order to coordinate possible measures and so both Switzerland and the EU can make their own contribution.

I am confident that Switzerland will participate in the EU efforts, even if it is not going to be easy to find ways to work together when such a large number of countries is involved. What kind of challenges does an immigrant from North Africa face in Switzerland?

D.E-M.: If the person is eligible for official refugee status they are likely to be granted asylum in a country such as Switzerland.

For the others it will be much more difficult. As they do not come from a country belonging to the EU or the European Free Trade Association (Efta) they have no realistic chance of finding a regular job, unless they have skills in an area where there is a shortage.

Switzerland will obviously not deport anybody to Tripoli at the moment. But as soon as the situation normalises, people will be sent home, except those who have official refugee status.

A week ago Switzerland agreed to dispatch three customs experts to southern Italy, to the EU agency for external border security (Frontex) mission there.

Two specialists for the verification of travel documents will leave for Sicily next Monday to be stationed at a refugee camp, according to the Federal Customs Office.

The Customs Office said Switzerland, which has a pool of 30 experts, will participate in further Frontex missions this year.

Switzerland joined Frontex in 2008 and contributes up to SFr2.7 million annually.

Switzerland’s cantonal authorities have pledged to examine a request by the federal authorities to house a possible influx of asylum seekers from North Africa.

The Federal Migration Office says it can process up to 1,300 new requests per month under the system in place at the moment and hopes to boost the figure to 1,800 with the assistance of the 26 cantons.

At a meeting in Bern on Thursday all sides agreed that an increase in the number of asylum seekers from North Africa was likely, but that it was not possible to have precise figures, according to a statement by the Migration Office.

(Adapted from French by Urs Geiser)

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