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Gangs of Migrants Are Being Detained High Up in the Swiss Alps

The most remote asylum center in Switzerland is housed in an abandoned military bunker in the Alps. It's the first of many more to come.

by Philipp Spillmann and Philipp Cron
Nov 28 2013, 10:40pm

Photos by Evan Ruetsch

The most remote asylum center in Switzerland is housed in an abandoned military bunker high up in the Swiss Alps. Standing outside the facility at the top of the Lukmanier Pass, you can see nothing but an endless amount of rocks and a strangely shimmering black reservoir that is so cold your skin starts to burn as soon as you put your feet in it. The only sound is the incessant buzzing of the high-voltage wires running through the small pylon that stands in front of the entrance to Asylzentrum Lukmanier.

The center usually houses between 50 and 80 men, sent to wait in the mountains to find out if they will be granted the right to live in Europe. The residents sleep in bomb shelters they share in groups of five and follow a strictly regulated daily routine — three meals a day, lights out at 10 PM, and if they want to leave the camp, they have to wait for the weekend. To an outside observer it would appear that the detainees are criminals, yet they are only looking for a better life away from their war-ravaged countries.

This isolation cell, which opened in July, is the first of many more to come. A law passed over the summer essentially allows empty military facilities to be transformed into "integration zones."

Last month we hiked up into the mountains to pay a visit.

The first person we met was 18-year-old Narsi from Afghanistan. He has a good sense of humor, hates products from China, and loves cars, mentioning that the surrounding landscape and hiking trails would be perfect for a dirt rally. Narsi's Facebook profile is full of pictures of him wearing black blazers standing on the beach in front of his Lexus. Is he really 18? He claims he is, but the department of immigration is skeptical — a lot of asylum seekers pretend to be underage in an attempt to speed up the process.

Like many other Afghan refugees, Narsi spent the majority of his childhood in Iran but left for Turkey when life in the country started worsening. On the doorstep to the West, just before crossing over to Greece, he and the others he was with tossed their passports into the Mediterranean before going their separate ways. Although he did say he imagined Europe to be slightly more hospitable, he didn’t complain about the living conditions in the center too much, aside from it being boring and having crappy food.

This guy goes by the name "Beer Wolf" because his Ethiopian name is impossible for European people to pronounce. Beer Wolf didn't share Narsi's optimism; he hates the mountains and hiking, but he does like rappers who get shot like 50 Cent and Tupac. His wife and children live about an hour's drive away, in Buchs, St. Gallen, and he misses them every second. If his claim for asylum doesn’t work out he will be sent back to Greece, his first point of entry to the EU. He's heard that it's much easier to get asylum in Greece, but for now he's trapped up in the Swiss mountains.

The next man we spoke to was Joseph, a French-speaking Eritrean florist. The rest of the detainees at Asylzentrum Lukmanier call him "The Mafioso" and if they held Best Dressed contests there, Joseph would win. We found him furiously talking into his mobile phone — turns out he was getting deported that very same day due to "bad behavior." What this bad behavior amounted to, he couldn’t say, and he had no idea where he was being shipped off to.

His main gripe was that detainees don’t receive any climate-appropriate clothing other than their working clothes, which they are not allowed to wear outside working hours. For the asylum seekers at Asylzentrum Lukmanier, work consists of different community jobs, such as removing rubble from hiking trails or roadwork. When Joseph's not being kept busy with that, he wanders the mountainsides smoking in his crocodile brogues.

The situation we encountered in the Alps may seem weird, but it's not unique. If anything, it's symptomatic of the modern face of Swiss immigration policy, which seems to betray the country's humanitarian tradition. Back in August, for example, ten asylum seekers in the village of Solothurn protested against being forced to live in a bomb shelter with no sunlight or fresh air supply. You would think that those demands were fairly reasonable, but their demonstration was a disaster — some guy poured beer and milk all over the protesters and the Swiss authorities withdrew both the wages they were legally owed and their food. Four days into the protest, the police shut the whole thing down and the ten asylum seekers were split up and carted off in different directions.

Other stories include migrants being banned from swimming pools, sports grounds, schools, and churches; and of a place known as Minimalcenter Waldau, where detainees who have displayed "behavioral problems" in other centers are sent. In January, 32-year-old Lebanese-Palestinian Feras Motaleeb died there under mysterious circumstances. He had been brought to Waldau because of a fight at his previous facility, and also because he refused to put out his cigarette in the transit center in Cazis, which acts as a kind of asylum seeker sorting office.

Could this be the beginning of a new, shady era of European border control? When the Schengen Implementing Convention was converted to EU law at the end of the '90s, the EU's asylum policy was supposedly inspired by the German Idea of “safe third- and home-countries.” What this means is that people who have “unlawfully” entered Schengen territory can be sent back to their countries immediately. To avoid that, millions of migrants throw away their passports, creating a bureaucratic nightmare that keeps thousands of immigrants in the system interminably.

Despite its reputation as a country full of mountains filled with gold, this seems like an odd time for Switzerland to be spending so much money converting its old military centers into isolation tanks for people in need. Population growth is down, the unemployment rate has just nudged above a relatively high 3 percent, and certain companies are constantly understaffed. Even more absurd than this, however, was the image of dozens of hikers, faces smeared with suntan lotion, coming across the group of boulder-hacking migrants and not having the slightest idea who any of them were or what they were doing there.

asylum seekers
war and conflict