Struggling to accommodate all its asylum seekers, Swiss authorities have turned to unused army quarters. Some of these lie on mountain passes, far away from inhabited areas.
Last year, 28,631 persons asked for
asylum in Switzerland, nearly twice as many as 2010. Most applicants
came from Eritrea, Nigeria and Tunisia. At the end of March 2013, 44,478
persons were registered at the Federal Office for Migration (FOM),
which is responsible the asylum process.
Swiss authorities struggle to accommodate all the immigrants. It’s a
home-made problem however, as former justice minister and prominent
right-wing politician Christoph Blocher initiated a drastic reduction in
the country’s asylum infrastructure in 2006.
Reacting to the shortage, the Swiss government in March 2012 ordered
the Federal Department of Defence, Civil Protection and Sport (DDPS) to
provide accommodation for 4,000 asylum seekers. The DDPS oversees the
Swiss Armed Forces, which have plenty of unused infrastructure.
the DDPS efforts were slowed by political adversities, building
restrictions and non-conformance with communal spatial plans. The
parliament therefore passed a resolution allowing bypass of communal and
cantonal permission procedures.
Swiss army quarters often are located in very remote areas. However,
many citizens are glad to see asylum seekers accommodated far away from
populated areas. That atmosphere is the result of more than a decade of
right-wing populist campaigns against foreigners and asylum seekers in
Before they are distributed to the cantons, the FOM hosts asylum
seekers in its own collective centres. Due to the urgent need, remote
accommodations seem right for the FOM, even if they pose logistical
One of these temporary accommodations was opened last October near
the village Sufers in the Grison Alps 1,400 metres above sea level. “The
asylum seekers live in an old, bleak bunker in a narrow valley,” says
Denise Graf of Amnesty International, who recently was allowed to visit
the place. “There are no houses nearby, just trees and heaps of snow.”
As in all FOM centres, asylum seekers may only stay outside between 9
am and 5 pm. An army barrack serves as a recreation room. For the
weekend, they may leave the centre. “To compensate for their spatial
isolation, they are given free tickets for public transportation on
weekends. However, the next bus stop is several kilometres away from the
bunker,” Graf tells IPS.
“Contact between Sufers’ 130 residents and the 80 asylum seekers is
rare,” says the village’s mayor Thomas Lechner. “The centre is
two-and-a-half kilometres away from the village.” Asked if he considered
an underground bunker a suitable place for asylum seekers, the mayor
says: “People are in there for a maximum of 35 days. For army troops, it
was handled this way as well, so I guess it’s also reasonable for
As the centre in Sufers was closed in the end of April, IPS couldn’t
speak to any of its inhabitants. However, former inhabitants of other
remote asylum centres have spoken of extreme boredom, which sometimes
raised the potential for conflicts.
“It is very difficult to live in bunkers, especially with limited
freedom of movement,” says Moreno Casasola, secretary general of the
refugee rights organisation ‘Solidarité sans Frontières’. “As you can
also see from soldiers’ experiences, it negatively affects your mind
The FOM was aware of that, so Sufers and other villages in the valley
were asked to provide work opportunities. “It was a win-win situation
for the asylum seekers as well as for our commune,” says mayor Thomas
Lechner. “They prepared firewood, renovated hiking paths and cleaned
“Indeed, many asylum seekers have welcomed work opportunities. It has
raised their acceptance and improved their reputation among locals,”
says Amnesty’s Denise Graf. “However, it’s definitely no solution to
place asylum seekers in such remote areas in the mountains.”
Because the centre in Sufers has closed, another temporary centre
will be opened on the Lukmanier Pass, which connects the cantons of
Grisons and Ticino. There, up to 100 asylum seekers will be accommodated
once the snow has melted.
“We decided to lend a hand to the FOM,” Peter Binz says. He is the
mayor of nearby Medel, the municipality to which the mountain pass
belongs. Medel has 400 inhabitants, its main village Curaglia is 15
kilometres away from Lukmanier Pass.
“We approach the issue with a certain respect and openness,” Binz
says. Currently, he collects ideas for work opportunities. “They’ll use
the bus and our shop, but besides that there won’t be many contacts with
the asylum seekers,” he estimates.
Quite soon, the FOM may announce the opening of yet another asylum
centre at Lago della Sella 2,256 meters above sea level. The artificial
lake is located near Gotthard Pass, which connects Switzerland’s North
to the Italian-speaking South.
Lago della Sella belongs to the municipality of Airolo. Its mayor
Franco Pedrini is worried: “Nobody lives up there. It’s a beautiful
place just fine for a one-week holiday camp, however the climate is
rough. It’s not suitable for asylum seekers.”
Even though the centre at Lago della Sella would only be used in
summer, it isn’t unusual that snow falls even in July or August. “A
little remote would be fine and please citizens who fear the asylum
seekers’ presence,” Pedrini says, “but that’s just way too far from any
‘Solidarité sans Frontières’ radically opposes remote asylum centres.
“These are human beings, not cows that are brought to the mountains in
summer,” its secretary general Moreno Casasola says. He points at other
options. “The FOM only relies on the DDPS to provide accommodations.
They need to expand their range of partners and include for example
clerical institutions, which own plenty of suitable real estate,”
André Durrer, who works for the relief organisation Caritas, also
shakes his head. He prefers asylum centres in urban agglomerations. “For
20 years, we have run asylum centres within populated areas without
fences around them and private security standing guard. And it has
worked,” he says.
“By providing good assistance and conditions for the asylum seekers,
no increased security arrangements are needed like at FOM-centres,”
This report was first published here by IPS Inter Press Service.