As Europe ponders how to handle the influx of refugees from North Africa, Swiss migration authorities have travelled to Tunisia for talks on the issue.
The number of Tunisian refugees arriving at Swiss borders may seem inconsequential – 251 between January and March – when compared with the 25,000 Tunisian migrants who have landed on Italian shores so far this year.
But Switzerland says the number of North Africans checked at Swiss borders has tripled in the past month to 150.
The situation was reason enough for Swiss migration chief Alard du Bois-Reymond and the foreign ministry’s secretary of state, Peter Maurer, to head to Tunisia this week.
“The goal of the visit was to gain an overview of the situation on the ground and to determine areas of cooperation on the issue of migration. To this end, Switzerland wanted to begin dialogue with Tunisia on migration,” the Federal Migration Office told swissinfo.ch on Wednesday.
As part of its aid to the region, Switzerland has earmarked SFr12 million ($13.4 million) to help countries affected by the North African uprisings.
The Tunisian visit follows recent remarks on the situation by the Swiss justice minister.
“The European Union must obtain an agreement for the return of immigrants as soon as possible and Tunisia must improve its fight against gangs involved in human trafficking,” Simonetta Sommaruga told fellow justice ministers gathered in Luxembourg on April 11.
One prominent Tunisian took objection to the Swiss visit. Abdeljalil Bedoui of the Tunisian General Labour Union and president of the Tunisian forum for economic and social rights told Swiss radio that such a visit for a small number of refugees was “inappropriate”.
“They can see what we are dealing with, in managing a situation where we are supporting thousands of people. Because of around 100-150 people, they become alarmed. It’s unacceptable,” he said.
In his mind, the current circumstances in North Africa are both unusual and complicated.
European countries should be showing more solidarity as a result and forgoing the usual Schengen immigration restrictions, he believed. They should be “encouraging democracy, knowing that democracy can open new avenues of economic development”.
It’s a view shared by the Swiss Refugee Council: should there be a massive influx of refugees from North Africa, Switzerland should show solidarity and be ready to accept refugees even if, under the Dublin accord, such asylum seekers fall under the responsibility of the Schengen country where they first arrive.
The Council added that Switzerland was bound by international law to help persecuted people as well as those in need of protection.
“Switzerland would do well to show solidarity and also to treat such requests instead of trying to close its borders,” spokesman Adrian Hauser told swissinfo.ch. “It is most important that every [refugee] application is treated in a careful and fair manner.”
The Federal Migration Office said every asylum application would be examined on a case-by-case basis to see if they met requirements. Those from North Africa would also be fast-tracked. But economic refugees – those seeking jobs – would not be granted asylum and “should leave Switzerland as quickly as possible”.
Tunisia said it was making great efforts despite the difficult situation. Foreign Minister Nacer Essid told Swiss radio the country was carrying out regular checks on land and trying to stop people leaving.
Meanwhile on the Swiss-Italian border point of Chiasso, patrols are in action. Recently, there has been a “slight increase” in asylum seekers crossing into Switzerland.
“But we are still a long way from having a tide of refugees, as some would have us believe,” Mauro Antonini, in charge of the Ticino border guards (fourth district), told swissinfo.ch.
“The current situation on the border could be considered normal. But that could change, and in that case, a migration influx cannot be treated like a simple public order problem – rather it’s a humanitarian issue.”
The Chiasso asylum centre has room for 130 people. Inside the large iron doors, the atmosphere is calm.
One 18-year-old economic refugee told Swiss television: “At first I wanted to go to France, but I knew the checks were strict. So I preferred my chances in Switzerland. But if my request is denied, I will try France.”
At a Schengen zone meeting on April 11, the Swiss justice minister criticised Italy for its policy of giving Tunisian economic refugees three-month entry permits. “Most of them are migrants who have come looking for work. They must return to Italy because that is where they entered the Schengen zone,” Sommaruga said.
The permit is not enough to enter Switzerland as holders must also have the economic means to stay.
Most Schengen ministers have agreed to assist Tunisia with its economic development, on the condition it moves to stem the flow of immigrants out of the country.
Debate over how the EU should tackle the pressure of immigration from North Africa is expected to hot up in the coming weeks. Heads of EU states are due to discuss proposals at a summit in June.
Asylum in figures
From January to March 2011, 4,371 people applied for asylum in Switzerland – an 18% rise on the same period in 2010.
Most were filed by Eritreans (724 in all, up 35% on 2010), Nigerians (428, down 32%) and Tunisians (251, up 77%).
In March alone, there were 1,874 requests, a third more than in March 2010.
The Swiss justice minister has said Switzerland could offer protection to refugees fleeing the fighting in Libya but that Tunisian economic refugees would be sent home.end of infobox
Italy has asked other EU governments to help it cope with 26,000 migrants who have arrived on its shores so far this year after fleeing violence in Libya and unrest in Tunisia and Egypt.
The demands, and Rome’s decision to issue the migrants with temporary permits travel across the Schengen bloc, have created a backlash. Many EU countries are worried that offering shelter to too many migrants will encourage more to attempt illegal entry to Europe.
In one case on April 17, France temporarily shut its border to trains from Italy carrying African migrants, which Rome formally protested. Belgium has also acted, saying Tunisians issued with an Italian transit visa must prove they have at least €10,000 per couple to enter. Austria is also looking for ways to stop migrants.
Such moves have angered Italy, with Interior Minister Roberto Maroni telling a recent Schengen zone meeting: “We asked for help and we have been told to go it alone. I wonder if it still makes sense to be part of the European Union.”
Aid agencies say thousands more refugees may still head north across the Mediterranean, either directly from Libya or through Tunisia and Egypt.
To manage the issue, the European Commission is trying to persuade EU governments to offer travel and trade incentives to authorities in Tunis and Cairo to secure their borders.
Under EU rules, governments can issue residence permits to non-EU citizens, but migrants have to have travel documents and means to support themselves if they want to enter other states. An EU government can also conduct sporadic border controls and can briefly re-instate full borders to aid public security.end of infobox
(With input from Andrea Clementi), swissinfo.ch