LEAD STORY
Volume 16 Number 2
On the Frontiers of a Needy World
01 April 2003

Like most western Europe countries, Switzerland is seeing a rise in asylum applications. Mary Lean finds out how the Swiss are responding.
It has been snowing heavily in the border town of Vallorbe, Switzerland. On the steps of the railway station, two men from Iraq are smoking and gazing out across the valley at the people skiing on the slopes opposite. They have been in Switzerland for less than two weeks.

One of them is a restaurant owner from Baghdad. His mother and sister are in the US, and his contact with them earned him nine months in prison, after which he paid a trafficker $4,000 to bring him to the West. He is equally appalled by Saddam's regime, by the prospect of war and by the West's motives, as he perceives them.

'So what is the answer?' I ask.

'If I knew the answer, I would tell you,' he says. Then, after a pause, he adds, 'I have come here, that's the answer.'

Last year, over half a million people came up with the same answer to the question of survival and sought asylum in the West. Some were running from oppression and persecution; some from war; some from poverty - many from all three. While a cynical minority exploited the asylum system for criminal or political reasons, most were driven by desperation.

And they were greeted by desperation: systems buckling under the numbers arriving, governments frantic to stem the flow, and host communities fearful for their jobs, houses and traditions. When the figures for 2002 are finally in, the numbers applying for asylum in Britain are expected to have topped 100,000 for the first time. Switzerland's total is a quarter of that, but with a population an eighth the size of Britain's, this gives her one of the highest per capita application rates in Europe.

Since I started working with detained asylum seekers in Britain, seven years ago, I have believed that the West's response to the 'strangers at its door' is a litmus test of our democracies, and of our moral and spiritual values. I went to Switzerland to see how a small country, with a long history of grassroots democracy and cultural diversity, is coping with the thousands throwing themselves on her mercy.

HOST COMMUNITY

As in Britain, the issue of asylum is a hot one. Many of the host community greet the phenomenon with fear and suspicion, particularly when asylum seekers are placed in small rural communities. People associate asylum seekers with crime and drug-dealing, even though recent statistics suggest that only a small minority is involved in such activities.


In November a referendum on tightening Switzerland's asylum laws was defeated by a margin of only 0.2 per cent. Had it been passed, stated the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the country would have decided to 'more or less shut its doors to people fleeing persecution'. In December the town of Meilen, near Zürich, hit the headlines with a proposal to bar asylum seekers from most public amenities and from parts of the city. After an outcry the plans were relaxed.

In Switzerland, as in Britain, the voices of fear and reaction often drown out those of welcome and support - but the networks of volunteers across both countries testify that the louder voice is not telling the full story.

Switzerland, after all, is a country which is used to diversity, with its four national languages and its largely self-governing cantons. Every third person in the city of Lausanne is not Swiss. And many who are now Swiss citizens grew up elsewhere - like my host and hostess, Tom and Brigitte Zilocchi, (he in Luxembourg, she in Germany).

In her work as the Protestant Church's liaison with refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants in Vaud, Brigitte Zilocchi oversees a plethora of voluntary relief and befriending initiatives.

One of these is ARAVOH, a group of 70 volunteers set up in 2000, when the Federal Government opened a reception centre for asylum seekers (CERA) in Vallorbe (population 3,000). Last year 11,000 asylum seekers passed through CERA, transforming this small town into a major interface between Switzerland and a needy world.

The centre is one of four in Switzerland where asylum applicants are processed and given health checks before being sent to wait in a canton for the outcome of their cases. They remain at CERA for one to two weeks, receiving full board but no cash. They are allowed out into the town for a couple of hours in the morning and afternoon.

I am met at the station by Christiane Mathys, a feisty grandmother. As we fight our way through the wind and snow, she regales me with her run-ins with the town council over the funding of ARAVOH. The presence of CERA has been a challenge for a community where, not so long ago, a 'foreigner' was someone from France. There have been some thefts, though none of the major crimes or rapes that the locals feared.

BONE OF CONTENTION

ARAVOH's volunteers take it in turns to man a tiny drop-in centre and second-hand clothes store in the town. This morning René, a town councillor, is dispensing coffee and a listening ear, while Jacqueline, a nurse, is coping with the run on boots, hats and gloves caused by the snowy weather. Karine pops in from the legal advice centre in the next room to give new arrivals lists of contacts in the different cantons to which they may be sent.

Karine's work is a bone of contention with the town council, which is threatening to withdraw funding if ARAVOH continues with it. Coffee and sympathy are acceptable, apparently; helping people to win their asylum cases is more controversial.

Some 25 people come stamping in from the cold during the morning: from Congo, Sudan, Iraq, Burkino Faso, Burundi, Kosovo, Cameroon....


The walls of the room are covered with drawings of flags, sometimes with captions - 'God please we need peace in Africa, God's own continent,' reads one. Two men from Congo tell us that in some families there, the men and women take it in turns to eat, every other day.

The chaplains at CERA are also part of ARAVOH and one of them, Daniel Rochat, takes me to visit the centre. The atmosphere is more relaxed than that in the detention centre where I visit in England. Although Rochat tells me that there are 20 police in the basement, their presence is not obvious, and the staff at the centre do not wear uniforms. The major problem is boredom, says Rochat - other than a ping pong table and football net, and informal prayer groups, there is nothing for the residents to do.

The chaplaincy has a room of its own, where it has set up a small library. We find a 20-year-old Kosovan there, avidly reading the only Albanian book. He tells me that his father has been killed, and his mother lost her arm in the bombing. He has psychological problems, but while the nurses at CERA are supportive it seems unlikely that he will get specialist help. Another asylum seeker comes in to borrow a Qur'an and settles down in a corner to read it.

On the train back to Lausanne, a young black man walks through my compartment. Shortly afterwards, he is followed by three police. At the next station, I see him walking down the platform. People from CERA often try to go to Lausanne, I am told, but rarely have the money for the ticket.

FALL-OUT SHELTERS

Brigitte Zilocchi meets me off the train with a car full of jam, given to charity by the wholesalers, which she is planning to pass on to asylum-seeking families. The group in Vallorbe is just one of those which she nurtures. There are some 9,000 asylum seekers accommodated around the canton of Vaud and in most towns where there is an accommodation centre there is also a group of volunteers.

In Lausanne itself there are several such initiatives. One team meets the 9.20 train from Vallorbe every morning to help asylum seekers being dispersed around Switzerland to connect to the right train. Two other groups run drop-in centres, and there are also projects for children and high school students. Last Christmas over a hundred families invited asylum seekers into their homes.

Zilocchi takes me to visit the drop-in centre at Tour Grise 26, which serves new arrivals from Vallorbe who have been allocated to the canton of Vaud. While they wait for their accommodation to be sorted out, they are housed in one of the underground fall-out shelters which are attached to every public building in Switzerland.

The conditions are grim, an Iranian inhabitant tells me: 50 asylum seekers flung together, in three-tier bunks, with few sanitary facilities and water that is usually cold. They are locked out between 8.00am and 8.00pm, with nowhere to go except the drop-in centre, the streets and the station.

A TV crew is waiting for us at Tour Grise 26. They are following Zilocchi for a 15-minute documentary, but, admits the producer, are having to run fast to keep up. While some of Tour Grise's clients are keen to be filmed, others, like the Iranian, hide their faces, for fear of being spotted by the authorities back home. Others leave hastily because, Zilocchi suspects, they are dealing in drugs.

Asylum seekers in Vaud receive SF12 a day (£5.50) - SF8 for food, SF2 for clothes and SF2 for transport and leisure. This money comes from the Federal Government, which provides a set sum for each asylum seeker, but leaves it up to the cantons to decide how much should be retained to pay for accommodation and social workers' salaries. In the canton of Bern, says Zilocchi, asylum seekers only receive SF8 (£3.60) a day. Permission to work also varies from canton to canton - in Vaud, asylum seekers are not allowed to work for the first three months, and even then jobs are hard to find. So the food provided at the drop-in centres is welcome.

That evening I go with Zilocchi to a parish council meeting, where she has been invited to speak about her work. As well as coordinating the volunteers, she and her Catholic counterpart act as ombudsmen for the refugee and immigrant communities. 'People come to us for everything from how to get papers to the extreme distress of a deportation notice,' she explains. 'They come and they empty their hearts.' Once a week she runs an advice session for sans papiers, people who have often spent years in Switzerland, without any legal status, working for peanuts in a 'new form of slavery'.

After Zilocchi has finished speaking, the questions begin. She answers patiently, but later admits that she is alarmed by the level of ignorance she finds. One of those there admits to employing sans papiers, others press on the issue of crime. Of course, she says, those who commit crimes should be deported.

Zilocchi has received anonymous letters, asking what she is doing for 'poor Swiss people'. She replies that she helps whoever comes to her. She might also tell the story of 'Jean', from Congo, who spends one day a week helping an old lady as a Red Cross volunteer.

This isn't an exceptional case, she insists. 'Lots of young asylum seekers would like to do something, but the doors are often shut. People are afraid, mistrustful. What a shame! It could be the beginning of friendship, sharing....'

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YOUNG ALBANIANS GRASP THE FUTURE

A small project in Albania is providing a pinprick of light amid the darkness and confusion surrounding asylum and migration issues in Europe.

Western Europe's cities are full of young Albanians, who have left one of the continent's poorest countries in search of a better life. Many work illegally, some are involved in drugs and crime. A recent survey of 260 15- to 18-year-olds in Albania found that 46.5 per cent would emigrate if they had the chance.

Since 1998 the Swiss government has returned 4,900 people to Albania. 'Behind these figures are people whose dreams have not come true,' says Patrice de Mestral, the Swiss coordinator of the Kape të Ardhmen ('take hold of the future') project, which has given 412 returnees a chance to make a new start.

The project offers to carry 60 per cent of the wage bill when an employer takes on a young returnee for a nine-month apprenticeship. Eighty per cent of participants have continued in employment afterwards. The scheme, which is active in 17 towns and villages, also contributes to rural development and so helps to stem the flight from the countryside to the shanty towns of the capital, Tirana.

De Mestral has 17 years' experience as a prison chaplain in the canton of Zürich, and also piloted the post of chaplain to the city police. When he retired, he could not stop thinking of the young Albanians he had met in prison - some waiting for deportation from Switzerland after illegal entry or failed asylum claims, others serving drug-related sentences. 'By the time I met them, their cases were closed and they were going home,' he says. 'All I could say was, "One day I'll visit you in your country." '

A few months after retiring de Mestral kept his promise. He based with a women's project in Tirana, linked to Swiss Interchurch Aid (HEKS). In December 1998, he funded a survey of all the Albanians coming through the airport on their way back from Switzerland. Only 25 per cent said they planned to stay in Albania.

By early 1999, Kape të Ardhmen had been set up, under the management of Irena Dono, and de Mestral was distributing leaflets in Swiss prisons, inviting Albanians to find help in rebuilding their lives by visiting the project's office in Tirana after their return.

The outbreak of the war in Kosovo in March 1999 brought everything to a halt. 'For four months, hardly anyone came to our office,' says de Mestral. 'People were afraid that we were working with the Albanian secret police. By August 1999 we were almost ready to give up.' Instead, the project's staff distributed leaflets addressing these fears in Tirana's coffee shops. The first clients began to drop in and by the end of 1999, the first 20 contracts were in place.

The project deliberately focussed on a small target group - those who had been returned from Switzerland and whose families depended on them for support. Many rural families scrape together large sums to get a young person to Europe, in the hope that they will make good and send money home. 'When they return with nothing, they're seen as a failure,' says de Mestral. The project helps them to salvage their self-esteem.

Those who are selected for the project are asked to find someone who will take them on as an apprentice and bring them to the office. In Albania's closely-knit society, these 'mini-bosses' are often family members. They benefit from subsidized labour, while the apprentice benefits from training.

Business life in Albania is hard, with corruption and organized crime to contend with. Lack of banking and postal facilities mean that the wage subsidies have to be delivered by hand. The job falls to Irina Dono's husband, a retired army officer, who varies his days and routes to deter robbery. These monthly visits provide support for both the employer and the apprentice, and the project also arranges gatherings where participants can meet and discuss their problems.

Funding came initially from HEKS and from Catholic and Protestant parishes along the 'gold coast' of the Lake of Zürich. Since then the Swiss department for technical aid and humanitarian relief, the Swiss police, the Development Agency of the Protestant Churches (EKD) in Germany and, most recently, the International Organization for Migration have contributed. As a result, the project is being opened to Albanians repatriated from countries other than Switzerland.

The project's parent association, Hope for the Future, also works to raise awareness in Albanian high schools about the problems facing migrants. As their survey showed, a large proportion of young people want to leave Albania because of its economic problems. 'I had no money, no clothes like my friends, at home we lived a very bad life, we didn't have even bread to eat,' writes one failed migrant in the association's newsletter. 'They watch Italian and American TV, and they think, "Why stay?"' says de Mestral.

When I met him, he was just about to return to Albania for the 20th time. The project's success has led to suggestions that it could be replicated in other countries, but de Mestral, with his 70th birthday rounding the corner, will leave that to someone else.

'I'm quite clear that what I am doing is just a few drops of water on a hot stone,' he says. But, as Mother Teresa (herself an Albanian) once said, 'the ocean too is made up of drops'. And for the 412 young people who have benefited from the scheme it is more than just a symbolic gesture.
Mary Lean


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