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Asylum seeker protests anger many Swiss

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At asylum centre in Realp, an asylum seeker stands next to poster promoting aid to refugees who want to return to their home countries. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP
10:49 CEST+02:00
The mayor of the tiny Swiss village of Kestenholz glances sadly around the empty asylum centre, his gaze resting on two massive metal bunks crammed with 12 bare mattresses.

"I really don't understand why this wasn't good enough," Arno Buergi says, furrowing his brow.
   
Only two of the 12 male asylum seekers brought to this northwestern village last Friday are still staying at the makeshift centre.
   
The others left shortly after they were ushered down the hard concrete driveway into the underground military shelter, heading to the train station in the nearby town of Solothurn in protest at living conditions they described as "unworthy of a human being".
   
"There's no air, no windows and 30 people sleeping together . . . that's not the way it should be," Turkish Kurd Abdullah Ochalan complained to public Swiss radio RTS before the protesters were cleared out of the train station early Tuesday.
   
The protest made international headlines, especially as it came just days after revelations that another Swiss town was restricting access to some public spaces for asylum seekers.
   
The men's quarters of the Kestenholz centre are cramped and the air is stuffy, but the living room, kitchen and bathroom are spacious and well-equipped.
   
"I think the accommodation is good," says Buergi, who took over as mayor just a week before the scandal broke.
   
Walking around the shelter in a tee shirt, shorts and flipflops, he rests a hand on the flat-screen TV and nods towards the fussball table in the next room.
   
"The shelter is OK.," agrees Claudia Haenzi, the head of social affairs in the canton of Solothurn.

"It's completely new and renovated, so it's possible to live there."
   
The shelter, she says, is only a temporary solution while the village and canton search for more suitable housing.
   
Human rights activists warn though that Switzerland, which in recent years has faced a spike in refugee numbers, is increasingly using its multitude of military shelters to house asylum seekers for ever longer periods.
   
Denise Graf of Amnesty International's Swiss section says she knows of asylum seekers who were holed up for nine months in such shelters, which "stink, there's no air, no light, and its always noisy."
   
But in the idyllic town of Solothurn, many people were outraged by the protest of the asylum seekers -- from Syria, Afghanistan and Turkey -- and Haenzi says police ended the demonstration because they feared the men would be attacked.
   
"Our system is the only one I know of where people are given an apartment, food and even money if they choose to go back home," says 50-year-old Maria Lutherbacher.

"Switzerland does too much already," she says.

"They shouldn't complain."

Fabio Jeger, also 50 and who heads a logistics company, agrees.
   
"I did my Swiss military service for several years, and lived in such buildings," he says.

"It's not a first class hotel, but you can live there."

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The asylum seekers should be grateful for what they are given in Switzerland, he says, pointing out that "it's surely better than the situation that they have at home".
   
Others though lament the lack of compassion.
   
"I think many are too quick to pass a harsh judgement on these people, who most often are really refugees," says 58-year-old Solothurn local Brigitta Huegin.
   
"Lots of people here say that if they're not happy they can just go back to where they came from, but often that is just not possible."
   
Matthias Schneeberger, 36, who is waiting for a train home to Bern at the end of his workday in Solothurn, meanwhile, says he understands that people might get upset at the protest.
   
But it is wrong to compare housing conditions in the countries asylum seekers come from and the lodgings they are offered in Switzerland, which has been spared war and hardship for centuries, he insists.
   
"When you come here and see all of the wonderful infrastructure we have here," he says, "it must be difficult to be asked to live (underground)."

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