Swiss brace for refugee trickle to turn into flood
Nina Larson and Agnès Pedrero/AFP · 23 Sep 2015, 10:15
Published: 23 Sep 2015 10:15 GMT+02:00
- Switzerland prepares to take its share of refugees (18 Sep 15)
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Between 30 and 150 migrants and refugees are intercepted each day at the train station in the small southern Swiss town of Chiasso.
The numbers pale in comparison to the waves of migrants and refugees taking the perilous Mediterranean route to Greece and on up through the Balkans towards more hospitable countries in northern Europe.
But this lazy border town in Switzerland's Italian-speaking Ticino region is bracing for an expected influx as crowds of migrants try to navigate a growing number of closed borders in the east and as the number of possible routes dwindles.
"At the moment, everything is under control, the situation is stable, but tomorrow that could change," said Patrick Benz, head of the Swiss border guards' migration unit.
Thousands per day?
Norman Gobbi, head of Ticino's regional government and member of the populist rightwing Lega dei Ticinesi party, meanwhile said border closures and tighter border controls elsewhere could easily push large numbers towards Switzerland.
"We are in the process of planning for possibly managing thousands of arrivals per day," he told AFP in his office in the regional capital Bellinzona.
Switzerland, which has already taken in some 9,000 Syrians since the conflict there exploded in March 2011, last week agreed to take in 1,500 of the 40,000 asylum seekers European countries want resettled from overstretched Greece and Italy.
Not many Syrians are crossing into Chiasso for the time being, however.
Most arriving here, by train, car or on foot, are from a range of African countries and have first travelled to Libya before attempting the perilous Mediterranean crossing to Italy.
While they so far make up only a fraction of the over half million migrants who have arrived in Europe this year, their numbers are climbing.
Between June and August, around 5,000 crossed the border into the town of just 8,000 inhabitants — more than double the number during the same period last year.
Chiasso, which historically has served as the main migrant gateway to Switzerland, has withstood greater numbers in the past, with hundreds crossing each day during the Balkan war in the 1990s.
But the current rise is wearing on both the Swiss population and asylum seekers already in the town who are facing growing anti-immigrant sentiment.
"You can feel it," said former Ethiopian government regulator Melekot Woldemichael, who has been waiting in Chiasso for five years for a decision on his asylum application.
But, the 53-year-old insisted, "it's natural . . . they are afraid for their own security, so even if they say anti-immigrant feelings, you have to understand them — I'm not saying that they're right."
At sea for 23 days
Chiasso mayor Moreno Colombo, meanwhile, stressed the need to prepare for a surge in arrivals "while the situation is calm", and said the town had asked for more border guards.
Some reinforcements have already arrived.
At the Chiasso station, a guard sent from Switzerland's German-speaking region, wearing a buzz-cut, steel-rimmed glasses and blue plastic gloves, questioned the Eritreans and Gambians pulled off the latest train from Milan.
"Why have you come? Do you know where you are?" he asked, over-enunciating to make himself understood.
The men and boys looked dazed as they were finger-printed and given bright yellow bracelets with new ID numbers.
They were also asked if they wished to seek asylum.
It's a crucial question: If they says yes, they can remain in Switzerland while the application is processed, but if they instead want to go elsewhere in Europe they will be sent back to Italy.
That is because Switzerland, while not part of the European Union, has agreed to the Dublin Regulation, under which asylum claims must be processed by the first European country refugees arrive in.
A Somali woman, clutching a six-month-old baby still sick after spending 23 days at sea in the Mediterranean listened intently as the guards explained what would happen once her asylum application had been filed.
The pair would be taken to the registration centre in Chiasso for medical examinations and then to an asylum centre elsewhere in Switzerland.
After she had been gently led off, one of the guards sighed heavily.
"I'm conflicted — the large numbers arriving means problems for Switzerland," he said.
"But it's so tough to hear their stories and try to imagine what I might do in their situation."