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An Alpine Ghetto For Switzerland's Rejected Asylum Seekers

Overlooking the Grison canton, Switzerland's controversial promised land for asylum seekers
Overlooking the Grison canton, Switzerland's controversial promised land for asylum seekers
Valerie de Graffenried

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

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