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Swiss Approach To Asylum-Seekers Stirs Controversy

The center for asylum-seekers in Bremgarten, Switzerland. There is controversy over rules in the town that would keep asylum-seekers away from public places.
Alesxandra Wey
The center for asylum-seekers in Bremgarten, Switzerland. There is controversy over rules in the town that would keep asylum-seekers away from public places.

Swiss officials are attracting attention with a plan in one town to segregate asylum seekers from the rest of the population.

The town of Bremgarten will ban them from entering public swimming pools, playing fields, libraries — even a church.

Mayor Raymond Tellenbach told German broadcaster ARD: "We have decided on security grounds not to allow access to these areas, to prevent conflict and guard against possible drug use."

It's a move supported by the head of the country's immigration office and other local politicians, but opposed by human rights groups and the church.

Switzerland isn't alone in public opposition to refugees.

Just last month, Pope Francis said Mass on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa – a gateway to Europe for those fleeing Africa — where he criticized the "global indifference" to the plight of migrants. Indeed, refugees and asylum-seekers are a hot-button issue in places as far afield as Australia, Germany, Jordan and Italy.

"I think in different parts of the world, it's not unusual to see resentment toward refugees and asylum-seekers," says Sarnata Reynolds, program manager for statelessness at Refugees International, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization. "What I think has changed is that the political rhetoric that would have been considered outrageous and appalling and shocking in the past, they're being seen as sound bites."

The issue of refugees is global: There were 15.4 million worldwide at the end of 2012, according to U.N. figures. The bulk of them lived in developing countries, relatively stable nations that border states engulfed by conflict. When these refugees seek asylum, it is up to an individual state to determine whether that person is a refugee under international law.

Switzerland has historically had generous refugee policies. But that may be changing.

Switzerland now has more asylum-seekers per capita than any other European country, and resentment against them has grown. In June, voters overwhelmingly approved measures to tighten asylum restrictions.

Reynolds says policies like the one in the town of Bremgarten make it more likely that citizens of a country will perceive "segregation, ostracism and discrimination as a reasonable response to a dangerous threat."

The Australian Approach

Echoes of the Swiss debate can be heard in Australia, where the government of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced last month that all asylum-seekers who arrive by boat will be sent to neighboring Papua New Guinea, to be housed in refugee-processing centers.

Both Australia and Papua New Guinea are signatories to the U.N. convention on refugees. As The New York Times notes, "If the asylum seekers are found to be entitled to refugee status under the convention and not simply economic migrants, they will be resettled in Papua New Guinea, but they forfeit any right to seek asylum in Australia."

There are tensions even in Sweden, where the shooting of a 69-year-old man in a neighborhood popular with asylum-seekers earlier this summer led to riots that lasted nearly a week.

The country accepts the second highest-number of refugees in Europe after Germany, where there's also growing opposition to refugee shelters.

Meanwhile Malta, the smallest EU member, this week rejected African migrants who sought asylum on its shores. Italy stepped in and allowed them to land in Sicily.

In the Middle East, Syria's refugees, escaping the civil war in their home country, are stretching resources in several countries, including Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt.

In fact, poorer countries take the bulk of the world's refugees.

"They're taking in overwhelming numbers of people often in a very, very quick period of time where there aren't opportunities to plan for it as there are in other developed countries," Reynolds says.

She says that richer countries have opportunities to plan for the incoming refugee population: "They can determine where people can live in dignity and humane conditions. They can determine how many people come in and they can get communities ready for the entry of refugees and asylum-seekers ... Those sorts of control mechanisms don't exist for countries next door to a Syria or a Somalia."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Krishnadev Calamur is NPR's deputy Washington editor. In this role, he helps oversee planning of the Washington desk's news coverage. He also edits NPR's Supreme Court coverage. Previously, Calamur was an editor and staff writer at The Atlantic. This is his second stint at NPR, having previously worked on NPR's website from 2008-15. Calamur received an M.A. in journalism from the University of Missouri.
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