Swiss brace for refugee trickle to turn into flood

Border guards in crisp blue uniforms rush onto the train as it grinds to a halt, quickly rounding up around a dozen African men and herding them into a nearby hall.

Swiss brace for refugee trickle to turn into flood
Refugees in Italy: most are avoiding Switzerland — for now. Photo: AFP

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.”


How Europe’s population is changing and what the EU is doing about it

The populations of countries across Europe are changing, with some increasing whilst others are falling. Populations are also ageing meaning the EU is having to react to changing demographics.

How Europe's population is changing and what the EU is doing about it

After decades of growth, the population of the European Union decreased over the past two years mostly due to the hundreds of thousands of deaths caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The latest data from the EU statistical office Eurostat show that the EU population was 446.8 million on 1 January 2022, 172,000 fewer than the previous year. On 1 January 2020, the EU had a population of 447.3 million.

This trend is because, in 2020 and 2021 the two years marked by the crippling pandemic, there have been more deaths than births and the negative natural change has been more significant than the positive net migration.

But there are major differences across countries. For example, in numerical terms, Italy is the country where the population has decreased the most, while France has recorded the largest increase.

What is happening and how is the EU reacting?

In which countries is the population growing?

In 2021, there were almost 4.1 million births and 5.3 million deaths in the EU, so the natural change was negative by 1.2 million (more broadly, there were 113,000 more deaths in 2021 than in 2020 and 531,000 more deaths in 2020 than in 2019, while the number of births remained almost the same).

Net migration, the number of people arriving in the EU minus those leaving, was 1.1 million, not enough to compensate.

A population growth, however, was recorded in 17 countries. Nine (Belgium, Denmark, Ireland, France, Cyprus, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands and Sweden) had both a natural increase and positive net migration.

READ ALSO: IN NUMBERS: Five things to know about Germany’s foreign population

In eight EU countries (the Czech Republic, Germany, Estonia, Spain, Lithuania, Austria, Portugal and Finland), the population increased because of positive net migration, while the natural change was negative.

The largest increase in absolute terms was in France (+185,900). The highest natural increase was in Ireland (5.0 per 1,000 persons), while the biggest growth rate relative to the existing population was recorded in Luxembourg, Ireland, Cyprus and Malta (all above 8.0 per 1,000 persons).

In total, 22 EU Member States had positive net migration, with Luxembourg (13.2 per 1 000 persons), Lithuania (12.4) and Portugal (9.6) topping the list.

Births and deaths in the EU from 1961 to 2021 (Eurostat)

Where is the population declining?

On the other hand, 18 EU countries had negative rates of natural change, with deaths outnumbering births in 2021.

Ten of these recorded a population decline. In Bulgaria, Italy, Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia population declined due to a negative natural change, while net migration was slightly positive.

In Croatia, Greece, Latvia, Romania and Slovakia, the decrease was both by negative natural change and negative net migration.

READ ALSO: Italian class sizes set to shrink as population falls further

The largest fall in population was reported in Italy, which lost over a quarter of a million (-253,100).

The most significant negative natural change was in Bulgaria (-13.1 per 1,000 persons), Latvia (-9.1), Lithuania (-8.7) and Romania (-8.2). On a proportional basis, Croatia and Bulgaria recorded the biggest population decline (-33.1 per 1,000 persons).

How is the EU responding to demographic change?

From 354.5 million in 1960, the EU population grew to 446.8 million on 1 January 2022, an increase of 92.3 million. If the growth was about 3 million persons per year in the 1960s, it slowed to about 0.7 million per year on average between 2005 and 2022, according to Eurostat.

The natural change was positive until 2011 and turned negative in 2012 when net migration became the key factor for population growth. However, in 2020 and 2021, this no longer compensated for natural change and led to a decline.

READ ALSO: IN NUMBERS: One in four Austrian residents now of foreign origin

Over time, says Eurostat, the negative natural change is expected to continue given the ageing of the population if the fertility rate (total number of children born to each woman) remains low.

This poses questions for the future of the labour market and social security services, such as pensions and healthcare.

The European Commission estimates that by 2070, 30.3 per cent of the EU population will be 65 or over compared to 20.3 per cent in 2019, and 13.2 per cent is projected to be 80 or older compared to 5.8 per cent in 2019.

The number of people needing long-term care is expected to increase from 19.5 million in 2016 to 23.6 million in 2030 and 30.5 million in 2050.

READ ALSO: How foreigners are changing Switzerland

However, demographic change impacts different countries and often regions within the same country differently.

When she took on the Presidency of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen appointed Dubravka Šuica, a Croatian politician, as Commissioner for Democracy and Demography to deal with these changes.

Among measures in the discussion, in January 2021, the Commission launched a debate on Europe’s ageing society, suggesting steps for higher labour market participation, including more equality between women and men and longer working lives.

In April, the Commission proposed measures to make Europe more attractive for foreign workers, including simplifying rules for non-EU nationals who live on a long-term basis in the EU. These will have to be approved by the European Parliament and the EU Council.

In the fourth quarter of this year, the Commission also plans to present a communication on dealing with ‘brain drain’ and mitigate the challenges associated with population decline in regions with low birth rates and high net emigration.

This article is published in cooperation with Europe Street News, a news outlet about citizens’ rights in the EU and the UK.