Switzerland saw a 45 percent increase in asylum requests compared in 2011 to the year before. The country struggles to accommodate the new asylum seekers while efforts to put up new centres face fierce resistance by local people.
Shortly before Christmas a small number of asylum seekers were turned away at several asylum centres at the Swiss border. The events marked the peak of an anticipated shortage in host facilities for asylum seekers in the wake of the uprisings in North Africa.
From 2004 to 2010, between 10,000 and 16,000 asylum requests were filed each year. The uprising in Libya led to the re-opening of a key immigration route to Western Europe via Lampedusa in spring 2011. Latest statistics reveal a drastic increase in new asylum requests in Switzerland from 15,567 in 2010 to 22,551 in 2011.
In Switzerland, it's the cantons’ obligation to host asylum seekers. From October to December last year, the canton of Lucerne in central Switzerland had to find a way to accommodate nearly 400 new asylum seekers.
In Lucerne, the relief organisation Caritas is tasked to host and provide services to asylum seekers. Its manager Thomas Thali confirms that sufficient accommodation could be found in late 2011, but that in March 2012 one of their centres is closing down and replacement hasn't been found yet.
In Lucerne, newly arriving people are allocated to collective centres before being relocated to private apartments at the second stage. Caritas manager Thali explains that in comparison to finding apartments for asylum seekers, establishing new centres is provoking political resistance. "Nobody's interested in hearing how well already existing centres are in fact working," Thali regrets.
In Fischbach, a small village with 700 inhabitants, the cantonal authorities planned to establish a new centre by 2012 providing accommodation to 55 asylum seekers. As the plans were unveiled, many locals voiced strong opposition.
Guido Graf, head of the Department of Health and Social Affairs in Lucerne, says he understands people's fears. "We normally inform the communities and inhabitants before signing a rental agreement for a new centre. It's a difficult path as it provokes resistance and criticism," he admits.
Despite the resistance, the centre in Fischbach will be established, though smaller than projected. Nevertheless, the canton still needs up to 100 new places in centres. In Weggis, a lovely village with 4,000 inhabitants right at the Lake Lucerne, the cantonal authorities found a building they would like to turn into a centre for up to 60 asylum seekers. At a communal meeting, many locals expressed strong dissatisfaction.
Emil Grabherr, president of the local section of the right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP) says that he radically opposes any asylum centre in Weggis, as the village is a regional tourist magnet. Grabherr lives 800 metres from the chosen building and heads a neighbourhood committee.
"The centre would be situated right in the middle of a residential and villa area. Residents are afraid." Also, he thinks that the project is not in line with the zoning plan.
"But anyway," Grabherr says, "it seems those so-called asylum seekers are in fact economic migrants." To stress his argument, he lists the origins of the anticipated refugees. Among them are war-torn countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia and Iraq. "Therefore, we don't even have to talk about the issue," says the SVP politician.
Speaking on behalf of 'Asylnetz', an organisation observing asylum-related human rights violations in Lucerne, Felix Kuhn points out that over and over, the same old foe images are projected on the new groups of asylum seekers.
"It used to be people from Sri Lanka, Turkey and the Balkans, but now the stigmatisation targets refugees from Africa," he says. Kuhn adds that it's no longer just the parties on the right wing who mobilise against asylum seekers, but that exponents from the political middle have joined the chorus.
Caritas's Thomas Thali says that as long as political parties manage to profit from mobilisations against centres for asylum seekers, resistance will persist. "The image of asylum seekers is strongly influenced by the political debate and the media." In contrast, Thali explains, where people have direct social exchange with asylum seekers, a relaxed atmosphere prevails.
Moreno Casasola, secretary general of the refugee rights organisation 'Solidarité sans frontières' regrets that doors are already slammed in the faces of asylum seekers before arrive. "Instead of having a serious discussion on hosting asylum seekers, things tend to turn into a openly racist debate," he says, pointing to the village of Bettwil, where the locals' protest had attracted far right-wing hanger-ons.
In Casasola's view, provincial villages just aren't the right places for asylum seekers. "There, they're often very isolated and face suspicion and resistance by local inhabitants. It would be better to accommodate asylum seekers in cities."
In an effort to fight what it considers "asylum misery", Lucerne's SVP is now preparing a popular initiative demanding the locals' right to vote on new asylum centres. Also, it demands fully supervised container settlements for asylum seekers outside of densely populated communal areas.
Ironically, it was the SVP's former justice minister Christoph Blocher who in 2006 initiated the reduction of the country's accommodation for asylum seekers. It was a time of comparatively low numbers of asylum requests. Before then, annual numbers of more than 20,000 requests were quite normal.
Now the cantons pay the price for Blocher's austerity. "We had to give up various capacities that we now lack," Thali says. Lucerne's Health and Social Affairs Department has already drawn its conclusions from the current crisis. "In the long run, we'll have to acquire facilities again to regain our freedom of action," Guido Graf says. "It's easier for us to keep a building in reserve than to open a new centre in cases of need."
This report was first published here by IPS Inter Press Service.