FRIBOURG — 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.
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Asylum seekers in Vienna's trainstation in September 2015 — 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."