Expats in Switzerland mobilize for refugees

Moved by the tragic images in recent days of the plight of Syrian refugees fleeing to Europe, some expats in Switzerland are taking matters into their own hands to try and help, finds The Local.

Expats in Switzerland mobilize for refugees
A refugee sits by his tent in Calais. Photo: Philippe Huguen/AFP

As Swiss aid organization Caritas Schweiz calls for the Swiss federal government to double the amount of aid pledged to the refugee crisis in Europe, private individuals in Switzerland are donating clothes, organizing collections and doing their part to help stricken migrants.

On Thursday 33-year-old Anila Hussain, originally from Pakistan, who lives with her family in Gland, in the canton of Vaud, decided with friend Navine Eldesouki to start collecting items to help refugees in Switzerland after seeing the heartbreaking image of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, who died trying to reach Turkey.

“I just saw the news and the picture that’s highlighted all over the world about this little boy. I think that provoked a lot of people and personally me as well. Being a mother, it’s painful,” Hussain told The Local.

“Yesterday morning we decided to just stand up ourselves and do something rather than depending on the politicians to do something.”

Hussain and Eldesouki are collecting winter clothes for adults and children that will be delivered on Saturday to a refugee centre in Sion in the canton of Valais.

“We are just trying to do a little something for them, it’s nothing special,” she said.

“I’m not Syrian, I have no connection with Syria; it’s only as a human being I am doing that for another human being.”

Hussain says she has received so many donations already that they won’t send everything to Sion but may keep some back for a future delivery to Germany.

“We are only sending the things they need right now, not to overwhelm them too much.”

Calais collection

Meanwhile Rachel Wise, a New Zealander who has lived in Switzerland for 10 years, is gathering clothes and practical items to take to refugees in Calais.

“My husband and I are driving up to the UK next week with an empty van so I thought on our way we could drop off some much needed supplies in Calais,” she tells The Local.

“I have felt moved and completely helpless reading about events in Africa and the Middle East and the lengths ordinary people are going to to escape their desperate situation there,” she says.

“I want to help and I think dropping some supplies to those who have made it as far as Calais (to then just wait in these awful camps) is the least I could do.”

Like Hussain, Wise has been inundated with donations.

“I put a note up on my Facebook page yesterday afternoon, thinking a few friends might drop some things off. Since then I have been totally overwhelmed with the response I received,” she tells The Local.

“It goes to show the reach of social media, but more importantly, it's fantastic how many people want to help. It seems opinion has changed across Europe and more people think we could do more to help.”

Swiss aid organization Caritas Schweiz recognized the “private acts of solidarity with the migrants and those who generously support emergency aid and Swiss relief efforts”.

In a statement published earlier this week the organization called for the Swiss government to increase its aid budget to “at least 100 million francs” to help Syrian refugees across the Middle East and Europe.

The recent rise from 30 to 50 million francs a year is “far too modest given the size of this humanitarian catastrophe,” it said.

It added: “From right to left on the political spectrum, parties continue to stress that they think providing aid in the countries affected is correct and urgent. It is certainly time to translate these fine words into deeds.”

Switzerland expects to receive 30,000 asylum requests this year, which, though a significant increase on previous years, is far from the numbers experienced elsewhere in Europe, stressed Caritas.

“Contrary to what certain politicians are saying, we are not talking about asylum chaos.”

Nevertheless, asylum centres across the country are at capacity, causing some cantons to erect temporary tents to house some migrants.

How to help

As well as making financial donations to charities supporting refugees, Caritas advises a number of ways that Swiss residents can offer practical help.

Individuals can offer up their spare room to house migrants through programmes including the Swiss Organization for the Help of Refugees and the Wegeleben project.

People can also donate clothes to Caritas for distribution to refugees within Switzerland, or give money to support their work with refugees in the Middle East.

Baby clothes and supplies, winter clothes, shoes and linen are particularly sought.

But the “most important” says Caritas, is that people engage within their community to make refugees feel welcome.

“Make contact with people. Have civic courage. Counter xenophobia.”


Amnesty decries Swiss asylum centre abuse

Minors and adults housed in Swiss asylum centres have faced serious abuses at the hands of security staff, including beatings and chokeholds, Amnesty International warned Wednesday.

Amnesty decries Swiss asylum centre abuse
An asylum centre in the Alpine village of Realp, Central Switzerland. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

In a report, the rights organisation’s Swiss chapter detailed “alarming abuse” in the country’s federal asylum centres, and called for urgent government action to address the problem.

The report documents a range of abuses by staff of the private security companies Securitas and Protectas, which had been contracted by Switzerland’s State Secretariat for Migration (SEM).

Amnesty said it had spoken with 14 asylum seekers, including two minors, who reported having faced abuse from the security officers between January 2020 and April 2021, along with 18 current and former security agents and other witnesses.

The asylum seekers described being beaten and physically restrained to the point where they could not breathe or fainted.

Some also complained about trouble breathing after being doused with pepper spray, and being locked in a metal container in freezing temperatures.

The report found that six of the alleged victims had to be hospitalised, while two said they had been denied the medical assistance they had requested.

“In addition to complaints about physical pain, mistreatment and punitive treatment, these people also voiced concerns about (security staff’s) hostility, prejudice and racism towards the residents,” said Alice Giraudel, a lawyer with Amnesty’s Swiss branch.

Such attitudes had seemed to target people of North African origin in particular, she said. Some of the abuse cases, Amnesty said, “could amount to torture”, and would thus violate Switzerland’s obligations under international law.

In a media statement, the SEM said it took the criticism “very seriously”, but rejected the suggestion that abuses were taking place in a systematic manner in federal asylum centres.

It stressed that there was no acceptance for “disproportionate constraint” of asylum seekers, and vowed to “sanction all improper behaviour.”

Giraudel hailed that the SEM had recently announced it would open an external probe into isolated abuse allegations.

But, she insisted, the situation was alarming and required the government to stop looking at allegations of abuse as the work of “a few bad apples”.