The Future Is a Distant Shore - Refugees in Switzerland

By Maycock, Kendall | The World and I, December 2002 | Go to article overview

The Future Is a Distant Shore - Refugees in Switzerland


Maycock, Kendall, The World and I


A few months ago, Nadia Fehr put herself on a list at her local Gemeinde (community) office. She was volunteering for Zeit-Tausch, or time-sharing, offering her services to help other Kosovar refugees and vice versa. Soon after, she took the opportunity to ask someone on the list to bake a cake for a get-together. Later, someone else called on her to care for refugee children while their mothers learned German.

Since then, every Wednesday, Fehr goes to the children's homes. She has to pass a Selbstbedienungskasse (self-service shop) to get there. These shops are ubiquitous in Swiss rural areas and operate on an honor system. Customers are trusted to put some money in a box and take what is needed: milk, potatoes, jam, firewood.

I walk with her. In the distance, the train can be heard as it pulls into the station at Scheuren: twenty-six minutes out of Zurich. Knowing the Swiss penchant for precision, Fehr comments that it must be fourteen past the hour.

The narrow dirt road is completely quiet. It leads over a lush green hill where working farms exist next to million-dollar homes. Formula One driver Michael Schumacher was recently reported to be scouting out property nearby, but we are headed toward a cluster of three small, unprepossessing brown buildings. Toys lie strewn outside. Suddenly, a door flies open and eight kids run out, all yelling excitedly in fluent German.

"They have a good life here," Fehr says. "I mean, they don't have much, but they have a good life here."

Down the road, around the corner, two women sit outside another house. They are the Bogranis, an Ashkali family from Kosovo. Ashkali are one of the minority populations that are gradually being repatriated. They've been told it's time to return, now that things have normalized.

The women are guarded. One speaks some German but doesn't say much. The other doesn't speak German at all. I learn that one woman's husband works in the kitchen of a restaurant in Zurich. Her companion's husband cannot legally find work. His family were given N or "negative," status; that is, they were not granted refugee status and are expected to leave the country by a date set by the government.

The two families are currently in "phase two," living independently after leaving a Durchgangszentrum (refugee camp). Low-cost rental housing was found for them, and their children were enrolled in the local school. Their status and future remain unclear, however. The women spend most of their days inside their cramped home or sitting on the grass outside.

"They're bored," explains Ruth Bollag, a social worker with the Gemeinde. She's been hired to teach them German, but she also teaches a quilting class, just to give them something to do. She tells me that the Ashkali women at this housing project don't like to participate. They keep very much to themselves.

Temporary haven

Through the years, Switzerland has been a haven for refugees. At least 54,000 of them fled there during the war in Kosovo, making it one of the most severely burdened countries in western Europe. The refugees were given temporary asylum; one day, it was assumed, they would collectively return.

By 1999, public concern over the high number of asylum seekers (and the drug trafficking and crime associated with some of them) was generating considerable domestic political pressure. The Swiss government was obliged to tighten its policy regarding their acceptance. In June 1999, the federal council decided on a program of financially assisted repatriation for Kosovar refugees. Refugees could leave as they chose (financial aid was greater for those who left before January 2000), and a deadline for voluntary returns was set at May 31, 2000. As many as 50,000 took leave by that date.

Compulsory repatriation, enforced by the police and without financial assistance, began in June 2000, although the government did grant a delay of departure in 1,962 cases.

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