In Switzerland, Asylum Is Being Privatized

An asylum seeker in Switzerland
An asylum seeker in Switzerland
Magalie Goumaz

FRIBOURG â€" The decision came like a bolt from the blue: In July 2007, the canton of Fribourg’s local government decided to hand over the management of asylum claimants to ORS, a private company from Zurich that was active in Germany.

And just like that, the Fribourg Red Cross was out, despite its years of hard work. At the time, ORS offered two advantages: its experience as a large, specialized organization, and its ability to do the job for less than 800,000 Swiss francs ($807,000). Since then, ORS has continued to land new management mandates, often cutting out public institutions.

Its reactivity is the firm's main asset. Last year, the migrant crisis didn't spare Switzerland, with close to 40,000 new asylum applicants entering the country; ORS opened six extra support centers there in just three months. This year is shaping up to be just as tense.

Still, ORS receives more criticism than praise. Founded in 1992, the company belongs to investment firm Equistone Partners Europe, originally Barclays Private Equity, a group of 35 European investors. Some believe it profits from asylum seekers, with critics denouncing its minimalist management and the poor accommodations of its centers.

Last summer, Amnesty International lambasted ORS for its "inhumane" management of a migrant center in the Austrian town of Traiskirchen. In Switzerland, meanwhile, most of the criticism is aimed at the "privatization of asylum."

In 2014, ORS had 65 million Swiss francs ($65.5 million) in revenue, most of it from public funds, and several media organizations claimed the figure jumped to 85 million Swiss francs last year. But ORS profits have never been made public.

"We’ve tried to find out more about how those sums are managed, but we've never had any clear explanation," says Cesla Amarelle, a Socialist member of Switzerland's National Council. Such opacity does little to instill trust.

In Fribourg, François Mollard, who leads the canton's Service for Social Action, says he doesn't know whether ORS is profitable, either.

"The state gives us a flat rate of 1,458 Swiss francs ($1,471) per asylum applicant, meaning a total of 18.5 million for 2015. This includes accommodation, maintenance, and health insurance. The funds are allocated to ORS and managed by the company. Do they benefit? If anyone can prove that to be true, then the rates will be lowered," he says, adding that the opposite is actually under consideration. "Switzerland’s rates have to go up, because the cantons are covering gaps in funding themselves; for Fribourg, that amounted to 6 million francs last year."

ORS is thought to settle for a maximum 15% profit on some of its administrative fees, including personnel wages and the ongoing training of its staff. The company admits to making gains in some places and seeing losses in others, depending, for instance, on rent prices and how many people it accommodates in its various centers.

Asylum seekers in Vienna's trainstation in September 2015 â€" Photo: Bwag

Claude Gumy, the company's operations director in Fribourg, knows that ORS is under fire.

"Our goal isn't to make money for a group of investors," he says. "We're focused first and foremost on being humane. We're able to make better offers than our competitors because our structure is more flexible and our operating system specific to private management.”

Gumy says ORS runs a tight ship. "The opposite wouldn't be tolerated, by our agent or by taxpayers, because it's public funds we're talking about. But our management doesn’t come at the expense of quality," he says, insisting that ORS has to abide by precise rules, and that the authorities conduct regular checks.

Amarelle, also a specialist on immigration, remains skeptical.

"By handing this responsibility over to private third parties, the authorities are unloading it onto companies that, whatever they might say, are profit-minded, which is in contradiction with the needs of vulnerable groups such as unaccompanied minors," she says.

Philippe Bovey, the Swiss-French director of the Swiss Protestant Mutual Aid, feels the same way.

"In principle, I can see how a profit-minded company could fulfil this mandate. But I fear the day when such firms will have to choose between quality of service and the profits they promised their investors,” he says. "By calling upon a company such as ORS, the authorities are making it clear that they want to work with an obedient service provider that will follow instructions to the letter, without discussion.”

Mollard believes that the privatization of certain services will continue.

"It's already the norm in northern European countries,” he says. “It's more difficult in Switzerland, because a private company is always suspected of wanting to make a profit. But as the years go by, we'll have no other choice but to accept this.”

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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