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Young asylum seekers find temporary home

Urs Maurer

High above the village of Affoltern am Albis near Zurich, a former spa hotel is home to almost 90 youths and children who entered Switzerland as unaccompanied minors.

The future for these underage immigrants whose asylum applications are being processed is uncertain. swissinfo visited the old “Kurhaus” Lilienberg to see how they are getting on.

Despite the charming setting, Lilienberg is not a dream come true for its residents. It is however a good base from which they can take their first steps towards a better life.

“At the moment we’re rather over-stretched,” Claude Hoch, head of unaccompanied minors in Lilienberg, told swissinfo.

Hoch and his 15 colleagues have a mandate from canton Zurich to look after 70 young asylum seekers.

“Now we have 89. We are responsible for accommodation and support. As they are children and youths, they also go to school here,” he said.

The residents live in one part of the former sanatorium two or three to a room with their own kitchens. The classrooms and recreation rooms are also located here.

In a neighbouring building the social workers, teachers and director have their offices. This part of the building is kept locked.

“We do our job here, look after our clients,” Hoch says. “We can’t take responsibility for their fate.” He explains: “We are often identified with those we take care of, made liable for them and their fate.”

The good life

The young people don’t seem to be crushed. The building is full of life. They are even dancing in one class. In other classrooms the students sit at their desks. There is a PlayStation and the obligatory pool table.

One of the teachers studies political science in Zurich and is – like most of his charges – black. Is that an advantage? “No,” he says. “On the contrary. For many in my group I am a traitor because I live with white people – and especially because I live like them”.

That is exactly what most here do not want. “They want a good life materially. They want a mobile phone, a car and the young men want a blonde girlfriend.”

Future not guaranteed

“We can’t offer or promise the young people a future here in Switzerland,” he says. Although they are young, they are going through a proper asylum process. Hardly any of them will be granted asylum.

“But we can still show them a future. We give them the tools.”

The school in Lilienberg tries to show the young asylum seekers that the rewards society has to offer cannot be earned without first accepting the conditions in which fairness can prosper.

“For that, a functioning society is necessary. A democracy – just like in Switzerland,” Hoch explains.

And that means a society without corruption, without chiefs who control everything. “That is exactly how the world looks where they come from. They do not know any different. Working together constructively is alien to most of them.”

Possible stories

Every one of the young people has a story. Universities in particular are interested in these stories.

Hoch says that if you ask, you will hear “possible stories”. Migration, hope for asylum, the dream of a better life have become a broad field and stories can be tailored to match the goal. “The most diverse players see to that. Also the brutal, the inhuman.”

Claude Hoch and his team do not concern themselves with background stories. “We want to use the young people’s time positively, that achieves more and we do it impartially.”

As he speaks, the pretty old building comes to life. School is over for the day. A glimpse into one classroom shows the work of the past two hours. On the wall hangs the hand-drawn map with the title “Lakes and rivers of Switzerland”.

swissinfo, based on an article in German by Urs Maurer

An estimated 15,000 people will have applied for asylum in 2008.

In the past eight years the average number of applicants annually has been 17,500.

All Swiss cantons are obliged to take in a number of asylum seekers proportion to the local population.

The number of unaccompanied minors varies from year to year. There were 217 such cases in 2007, two per cent of all asylum seekers.

According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), unaccompanied minors are children and young people who have not yet reached the end of their 18th year and who live outside their country of origin without their parents.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR