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Taking a turn at hosting asylum seekers

An asylum seeker at the Wünnewil centre helps with cutting bread. The centre will close at the end of April following the completion of its contract Keystone

A flood of asylum requests has made shelter space tight, with more and more towns playing host while the government re-works its policy. One commune found small ways to welcome its temporary guests while another is getting used to the idea.

“Sometimes people form an attitude about a situation before they have all the background information,” says Doris Bucheli, president of the town council in Wünnewil-Flamatt, canton Fribourg, where an asylum centre is about to close after the completion of its year-long contract. “We thought, these people are here, we will accept this challenge and try to make the best of it.”

Members of the community had the usual fears – potential crime, unrest and uncertainty – upon hearing in February 2012 that an asylum centre would open nearby. According to Bücheli, early discussions on the topic were heated and “if we had voted on it as a community, it wouldn’t have gone through”.

But, after 13 months of hosting a shelter for about 55 asylum seekers in the bunker of the fire station, the parties involved in Wünnewil-Flamatt largely deemed the endeavour a “success” in that nothing dramatic happened and there were many positive exchanges between asylum seekers and members of the community.


“Small sources of happiness”

“In Wünnewil, I remember people’s support,” says Tenzin, a Tibetan asylum seeker who lived at the centre for several months. “There was one woman who took us to a chocolate factory on her own expenditure. The people there are really warm, really good and very caring.”

Now at another asylum centre, Tenzin says he misses the “small sources of happiness” the Wünnewil townspeople brought him.

Wünnewil resident Ross Bennie fondly remembers taking some asylum seekers for a spin in his sports car when he happened to be near the centre running errands and the residents started admiring it.

According to Bucheli, those exchanges were made possible by early, community-wide information sessions and the formation of a group tasked with acting as a liaison between the center and the town residents. In addition to hearing and transmitting townspeople’s concerns, that group organised activities like an open house at the centre, sledging outings with the asylum seekers and holiday celebrations.

“Little by little, people realised over the course of those 13 months that it was actually going quite well overall,” Bucheli says. “Of course there were occasional issues (like a grocery store break-in). We don’t just see it through rose-colored glasses, but people realised, okay, they are just there, they are walking through our town, but they aren’t doing any harm.”

Michael Glauser of the federal migration office told that the need for asylum seeker accommodation is so acute that the department is going ahead with plans to build larger, all-encompassing centres even though the supporting “emergency measures” implemented in autumn 2012  may ultimately be struck down in a June referendum and the final cost is still up in the air.

The new centres are intended to several hundred asylum seekers along with everything they need, from translators to lawyers, all under one roof in order to streamline and speed up the decision process. The first such centre, meant to house up to 500 asylum seekers, was proposed to be built in Zurich. The migration office may open the new centres without express permission from the host cantons.

Other “emergency measures” the Swiss people will vote on in June include:

– Special centres may be created to house unruly asylum seekers

– Asylum seekers may no longer apply for asylum at Swiss embassies abroad

– Conscientious objectors and deserters no longer automatically qualify for asylum

Finding space

Michel Jungo, the manager of the Wünnewil asylum centre, admits the underground bunker wasn’t a completely ideal space, especially in the winter when its occupants couldn’t get outside as much. But, such defense shelters tend to be all that’s available to cantons when they must find emergency accommodation for extra asylum seekers who become their responsibility, as was the case in Wünnewil.

The migration office also has a certain number of asylum seekers it must house directly, without sending them to the cantons. To do so, it is working with the military to open temporary centres in old barracks, often high up on mountain passes. The Lukmanier pass is one such place – a temporary centre for 100 asylum seekers will open there in May.

Getting used to the idea

“We have to let it develop a bit and give it time, but we hope to create opportunities for exchange with the community to address prejudices and forge connections,” says Peter Binz, town council president of Medel, the canton Graubünden commune nearest the planned centre on the Lukmanier pass. He says locals were open to the idea, mostly out of a sense of civic duty, but many details still have to be worked out.

On the other side of the pass in canton Ticino, town clerk Loris Beretta says his commune of Blenio was less enthused about the prospect of a centre in the Lukmanier barracks.

Although Blenio is located 15 kilometres from the proposed centre, Beretta fears the asylum seekers on the pass could have a negative effect on the region’s tourism. The community wrote a letter to the government protesting that they didn’t have a say in the plans and adding they didn’t think the asylum seekers would be comfortable in the cold barracks; however, the centre is slated to go ahead.

Binz says a community group is being formed to liaise with the centre, much as in Wünnewil-Flamatt, and that representatives from Blenio and the larger town of Disentis near Medel will also be included.

Bringing all involved parties to the table early on is key, says Bucheli – although the canton could have insisted on putting a centre in Wünnewil-Flamatt regardless of the community’s willingness, cooperating with authorities early on allowed the community to have much more input over how things were run.

The federal migration office and the cantons contract with outside firms and nonprofits to find the social work staff necessary to oversee asylum centres.

The firm ORS oversees all of the migration office’s reception centres as well as numerous cantonal centres. Other overseeing organisations include the Salvation Army and Caritas.

According to ORS CEO Stefan Moll-Thissen, ORS staff are recruited from all over Switzerland and although they are generally placed in an asylum centre near where they live, many travel from post to post every six months to a year as temporary centres open and close.

Revolving doors

The extreme need for asylum seeker accommodations begs the question: if things were going so well in Wünnewil-Flamatt, why wasn’t the contract extended to spare the costs and hassle of starting over somewhere else?

“It’s clear that the community has to do things that way, the town council can’t lose face and just keep lengthening the contract,” says Jungo, who works for the external firm ORS, responsible for overseeing asylum centres in some 80 communities. “Even if there are only a few critical voices, it’s just too risky.”

Bucheli says that although Wünnewil-Flamatt did earn CHF8,000 per month for renting the bunker space to the canton, they didn’t agree to the centre for financial reasons and it wasn’t enough incentive to “push things too far” and lose the community’s trust.

And although he admits that opening a centre and training a team to run it is always a challenge, Stefan Moll-Thissen, the CEO of ORS, says it’s just part of the way things work.

“I can also understand the viewpoints of the commune and the canton, and we work within those agreements,” he says. “Leaders have to stick to their promises and I completely understand that. Even though it went much better than the community in Wünnewil expected at the beginning.”

(with input from Stefania Summermatter)

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR