By Isabelle Eichenberger
The number of Serbian asylum seekers, generally Roma, has peaked in Switzerland in recent months.
This “winter tourism” can be explained by the worsening quality of life for this persecuted community not only in Serbia but also in Kosovo.
The phenomenon first appeared after the lifting of travel restrictions for citizens of Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia to the Schengen zone, including Switzerland, in December 2009.
Most arrivals came from disadvantaged social groups, above all the Roma, who came looking for work despite knowing that they didn’t have the right to political asylum.
“Local agencies even offered direct coach trips,” said Michael Glauser, spokesman for the Federal Migration Office.
“These people knew Switzerland granted return assistance worth SFr600 ($650). This has since been reduced to SFr100 – to cover the trip back – and the requests have dropped as a consequence.”
However, this influx has recently started to increase again: last year, 1,217 requests for asylum out of a total of 22,551 were made by Serbs, most of them Roma. Half of these applications were made in November and December.
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Board and lodging
“We can only suppose that half of these people, who often live in make-shift camps, come to spend winter in Switzerland where they know they’ll get board and lodging for the duration of their application. That can’t be ruled out,” Glauser said.
What is certain is that the Roma, well informed about the various asylum laws, know that the two- or three-month process in Switzerland is longer than in similar countries such as Norway and the Netherlands.
The Swiss Refugee Council, an umbrella group for Swiss refugee organisations, agrees with the “winter tourism” theory to an extent.
“There were many Roma refugees from Bosnia and Kosovo who have been living in a risky situation since 1999. They know they have no chance [of getting asylum in Switzerland], but they know our legal weak spots,” said Beat Meiner, the council’s head.
The economic crisis which hit Europe hasn’t helped. According to Meiner, “the Roma are often more than happy to find temporary refuge in welcome centres or even civil protection shelters”.
Amnesty International is sceptical. “It might be true that the Roma are more likely to leave during the cold season, but I don’t think they do it with the sole intention of spending the winter somewhere,” said Denise Graf from the human rights organisation.
“They could also go to Germany or other countries which suspend deportation of rejected asylum seekers during the winter – unlike Switzerland.”
Glauser confirms that “deportations continue after the final decision on an asylum request”.
Amnesty is concerned above all by the worsening situation of Roma refugees in Serbia.
“The problem is economic because, tied to the ethnic issue, a full 97 per cent of them are unemployed,” Graf said.
A new problem has arisen with property speculation.
“The Roma are starting to be forced out of their lodgings,” according to the latest report by Nicola Duckworth, responsible for Europe and Asia for Amnesty.
“In Belgrade, their houses are being razed to make space for property projects of the Serbian state. They are neither relocated nor given social aid.”
Elsewhere, there’s the resurgence of tensions in the Kosovan city of Mitrovica, where the Serb minority still rejects the Albanian-speakers’ declaration of independence in 2008.
“The violence which broke out last summer has a direct influence on the situation of the large number of Roma in Mitrovica,” Graf said.
“What’s more, we’re worried about Roma in other parts of Kosovo, because they have often been accused of collaborating with the Serbs during the war.”
In Switzerland too, the Roma have a poor image among the population.
“Here, like elsewhere, they’re considered vagrants and thieves – to the point that Roma who are integrated prefer not to say where they’re from,” said Cristina Kruck, from the Zurich-based Rroma Foundation.
In Lausanne and Geneva, police regularly break up unauthorised camps set up under bridges or in parks. Begging – not to mention prostitution – have increased, which the authorities have tackled to varying degrees and with varying levels of success.
As for the situation in the Balkans, Graf called on Switzerland to “exert pressure on its partners in Serbia and Kosovo so that the aid granted by the European Union towards the reintegration of Roma reaches its destination”.
The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) responded that “in the matter of international cooperation, the SDC is aware of a latent risk of withdrawing the means made available”.
It added that methods existed to offset this risk, such as independent audits and assessments of the projects’ progress – progress to which the payments are tied.
(Translated from French by Thomas Stephens)