LANDQUART - He stirs his spaghetti with one hand, holding a cigarette in the other. Mohamed* has drops of sweat beading on his forehead despite the near-freezing temperatures. “It’s really tough here,” he says in his broken English.
“Last week, there was a knife fight between the Afghan and the Nigerian. They were drinking, shouting. I was angry. I couldn’t sleep.” The young Somali is wearing baggy jeans. On his arms, there are several recently sutured wounds.
We are in the industrial area of Waldau, in the city of Landquart, in eastern Switzerland. The “Minimalzentrum” is situated three minutes from the center of town. It is an open center, but outsiders who venture in without authorization risk prosecution and a fine.
This is where Switzerland houses asylum seekers whose behavior has caused problems in the other refugee centers.
“They are often people with alcohol problems, drug problems, or who are violent. Some of them have threatened officials from other centers. Others were convicted of serious offenses and have already been tried,” explains Georg Carl, in charge of refugees at the local migration office. “We transfer them when they do not comply with internal rules, to maintain security in other centers.”
This is also where rejected asylum seekers are being housed – the asylum seekers that refuse to leave Switzerland even though their refugee application has been denied, or can’t leave for any number of reasons. Some countries refuse to take them back, or they would be endangered if they went back.
Some asylum seekers are being processed or who have obtained a temporary visa – the “F permit” – meaning they cannot return to their countries for the moment. This is the case of Mohamed. He shows us his tattered permit. He is 24 years old, and has been in Switzerland for five years now. He looks at us, visibly intrigued by our presence. He agrees to tell us why he is here: the authorities transferred him after he had gotten into a fight, in Davos. He lost the job he had in a restaurant.
“I’ve been here in Waldau for more than two months,” he says. Like the other refugees here, he sleeps in a converted freight container with his personal affairs inside one small leather suitcase. Like the others, he doesn’t have access to welfare.
The center is designed to accommodate up to 18 people. When we visited, there were supposed to be three: Mohamed; a Nigerian and an Afghan with psychiatric problems who was separated from his family – living in another center – because of his violent acts. But at the time of our visit, one was at the hospital and the other in psychiatric care – because of the knife fight.
Life at the open center is bad, but up in the mountains, another refugee center is even more controversial.
Everyday, at 4:30 p.m., the man responsible for the Flüeli (the “departure center”) in the remote mountainous village of Valzeina – reached by steep and icy roads – comes to distribute emergency aid to the asylum seekers. The daily allowance is 7.30 Swiss francs ($8) a day. “The center’s residents have to be present every day from 4:30 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. Whoever is not there doesn’t get their allowance. If no one is here, then the center closes and they have to wait the next day to come back in again,” says a poster in the center’s tiny kitchen. The poster also says that the local police are allowed to search the premises at any time.
At the Flüeli, the rejected asylum seekers, who are supposed to leave the country, do not receive any allowance. They only get enough to eat and sleep, and are housed in a big chalet that used to serve as a children’s holiday camp. Under these conditions, some asylum seekers prefer to “disappear” or try their luck in other Swiss regions. Each region – known as a canton – has its own refugee laws, some tougher than others. The Grison canton, where the open center is, is notoriously tough on asylum seekers.
Some rejected asylum seekers staying in Flüeli will do something bad on purpose, so they can be sent down to the open center. “They find the location of the open center more attractive because Landquart has public transportation and a railway station,” says Georg Carl.
The open center has also housed rejected asylum seekers from Flüeli who weren’t disruptive but who were moved in order to make room for newcomers. Amnesty International’s Swiss branch has intervened many times to denounce the precarious conditions of the center.
“In 2008, when I visited the center, there were six people in a container, in three bunk beds,” says lawyer Denise Graf. “The only thing that we achieved is for the center not to be closed during the day. People with serious psychiatric problems should not be placed here.”
Ruth Zimmerman, an Amnesty International activist from the Grison canton, notes that until 2011, for instance, the rejected asylum seekers didn’t have access to free healthcare. “The Grison canton will only soften their stance when they are forced too, by federal injunction,” she says.
NGOs like the Miteinander Valzeina organize regular meetings and give legal support to asylum seekers. But Georg Carl says this is counter-productive, giving “false hope to rejected refugees that have to leave Switzerland.”
On two occasions, fires have started in containers. “Probably intentional fires,” says Georg Carl. And the fights are frequent. Grison canton authorities seem to hoping their controversial camps will act as a deterrent for asylum seekers who can’t be expelled and problem cases – or maybe convince them that “disappearing” is what’s best for everyone.
*not his real name
Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.
"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.
Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.
But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.
The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."
Criticism of any 'royal project'
The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.
Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.
In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release
Freedom of speech at stake
"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."
The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.
The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.
Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.
Shift to social media
While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.
The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.
Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".
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