Victims of Swiss apartment building fire were asylum seekers: report

Four adults and two children from two families from Eritrea and Ethiopia were killed in the fire that broke out in an apartment building in Solothurn in the early hours of Monday.

Victims of Swiss apartment building fire were asylum seekers: report
Solothurn authorities rented out four apartments to house asylum seekers in the building hit by Monday's blaze. Photo: AFP

The four parents of the two families were aged from 27 to 33. An infant from one family and a child of school age from the other family died in the fire.

Three children from the same two families remained in hospital, police said in a statement.

Some of the children were said to go to local kindergartens.

Four of the apartments in the building were rented out by the city of Solothurn to house asylum seekers, the city confirmed on Tuesday. Eleven people lived in these four apartments.

The Ethiopian family had seen their bid for asylum in Switzerland rejected, the head of social services in Solothurn, Claudia Hänzi, told local daily the Solothurner Zeitung.

The residence status of the family from Eritrea is not known.

Hänzi said the city only rented dwellings for asylum seekers that had the necessary safety infrastructure and that the families housed there must be capable of living independently. 

She stressed, too, that professional teams were in regular contact with all residents to provide assistance.

Initial investigations suggest Monday's fire was caused by a cigarette. One person was arrested and remains in custody, regional daily the Berner Zeitung reported on Tuesday.

Some 20 people were in the apartment building when the fire broke out. Witness described horrific scenes with people stuck in the building screaming.


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”.