Switzerland accused of discrimination against asylum seekers

Activists accuse Swiss over restrictions on migrants in public spaces and say they are being forced into 'inhumane' centres

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 August, 2013, 4:27am


Switzerland, which prides itself on its humanitarian principles, is facing a barrage of criticism over its treatment of asylum seekers, including claims of segregation and inhumane living conditions.

The controversy first broke last week when federal migration authorities said the small northern town of Bremgarten, with 6,500 residents, was permitted to deny residents of a new asylum centre access to public spaces.

Initial reports that the asylum seekers would be barred from the public pool, gyms and even the town library and churches sparked outrage and charges of segregation and discrimination from rights activists.

Swiss migration authorities maintained the reports were based on a misunderstanding.

They said the asylum seekers would have restricted access only to so-called "sensitive areas" where access is also restricted to the Swiss public, such as schools and sports facilities.

The rules were merely aimed at helping "organise the cohabitation between the asylum seekers and the town population", Federal Migration Office spokeswoman Gaby Szoelloesy said.

Denise Graf, of Amnesty International's Swiss section, was not convinced. She said the rules, which require asylum seekers to request permission from the town before accessing the pool, were "clearly discriminatory".

She also accused the federal government of making concessions to avoid protests from the communities chosen to house a growing number of temporary asylum centres.

Residents in one centre near the central city of Lucerne were barred from taking the shortest route to the train station, while other centres have imposed strict curfews, she said.

Meanwhile, police moved in this week to remove 10 asylum seekers who camped out for days at the Solothurn train station in northwestern Switzerland.

They were protesting against their living conditions in a subterranean bunker they described as "unworthy of a human being".

Switzerland is one of the countries in Europe that welcomes the most asylum seekers in proportion to its population.

About 48,000 people are currently in the process of applying for asylum in the small Alpine nation, including 28,631 who arrived last year - the highest number since 1999. The surge in refugees has prompted the country to hurriedly open a string of temporary asylum centres.

But the Swiss public, which in June voted overwhelmingly to tighten asylum laws, often resist the creation of such centres in their neighbourhoods.

Szoelloesy acknowledged that four of the 10 communities asked to host new centres since last year were granted the right to set up "sensitive areas", like Bremgarten, to help avoid "bad feelings" towards the asylum seekers.

She echoed Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga's claim last week that "fundamental rights are not negotiable" and insisted: "Our asylum system is fair and humane."

Gerry Simpson, senior refugee researcher for Human Rights Watch, welcomed Sommaruga's statement, saying he hoped it meant the rules agreed upon in Bremgarten "may now be revised and won't be repeated elsewhere in Switzerland".

But the 10 Solothurn demonstrators, who spent five days protesting about their living conditions in a windowless military shelter with insufficient ventilation in the nearby village of Kestenholz, do not feel they have been treated fairly in Switzerland.

"There's no air, no windows and 30 people sleeping together... It's not how it should be," Turkish Kurd Abdullah Ochalan complained before they were cleared out of the train station early on Tuesday.

Graf decried the increased use of such shelters, which are "underground, they stink, there's no air, no light, and its always noisy". She added: "For people who have been traumatised it is especially horrific."