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Switzerland

Swiss Town Builds Separate 'Refugee Path' Reminiscent Of Europe's Jewish Ghettos

A Swiss town has agreed, grudgingly, to accept 19 new asylum seekers. But the town is doing all it can to keep them out of sight, including a "Refugee path" that recalls "Jewish paths" that used to lead to and from ghet

Birmensdorf, Switzerland
Birmensdorf, Switzerland

BIRMENSDORF - Newcomers to this quiet town of 5,900 near Zurich, are generally lead on a pleasant walk through town. Large yellow signs point out the way to the city's barracks and to the treasured "Paradiesliweg" that goes through the Reppisch river valley. The guide will usually lead the visitor through a residential neighborhood on the way.

But for 19 new arrivals, who recently moved into two trailers right next to the barracks, there is a completely different route. For them, the town expanded an old trail that connected the two trailers directly to the somewhat uninteresting main street, passing though a small piece of the forest. City workers cleared the trees and did the planning. The trail is now a roomy gravel path, lit up at night. The idea: Thanks to this path, the 19 asylum seekers can go "directly from the train station to the trailers without passing through the neighborhood," as Annegret Grossen, head of social services, said of the town's hopes for the asylum trailers.

The agreement with the town's residents is that the asylum seekers should remain as invisible as possible. When Birmensdorf first announced its plans for the trailers in the spring 2010, neighbors protested. The only way to handle the additional 24 asylum seekers that the regional government wanted to accommodate in Birmensdorf was to keep them out of sight, since the town had already exhausted its affordable housing stock. But the local newspaper's "Letters to the Editor" section was filled with protests, threatening that a nearby residential development would lose around up to $4.4 million in value. "We support Birmensdorf's contribution to asylum policies... but we are against asylum centers in residential neighborhoods."

A large banner, emblazoned with the words "Not Here!" was hung in the neighborhood by a newly-formed community group. The same group also mounted a legal challenge to the asylum center, filing a total of 40 appeals, all of which were rejected. Most of the protesters resigned themselves to the asylum seekers' arrival after the legal challenge was rejected, says Birmensdorf Mayor Werner Steiner, though several families continued to insist that the center be built further away, in a gravel pit.

Ghetto memories

Due to the activists' loud protests, the city government has agreed to almost all of their demands. So not only are they building the new pathway, they are planting bushes in front of the asylum seekers' lodging - "to disguise the the building from outsiders," as Mayor Steiner put it. As as far as furnishing the homes, the community insisted that they would not offer any "unnecessary luxuries."

So the residents there sleep in bunk beds and sit on used sofas. Televisions are second hand. A part of the $627,000 spent on construction went towards an outdoor sitting area decorated with tree trunks, which are "strong and easy to clean." Most important to the town's residents was that the asylum center not become an "eyesore."

Not everyone in Birmensdorf thinks the asylum seekers are being treated fairly. One longtime resident who wished to remain anonymous said that the "Refugee trail" is reminiscent of the "Jewish trails' that existed in European ghettos. He says he is particularly bothered by the fact that the loudest protests came from new arrivals in the town. "And half of them are foreigners themselves," he says.

Mayor Steiner is eager for the pathway construction to be completed. For now, the asylum seekers can move around freely in town, and aren't required to use their special path. "But as soon as there is noise or complaints from the neighborhood," he said. "We will require them to use the new path."

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