A net­work for asy­lum seek­ers: the ‘Losone’ model

The China Post - - COMMENTARY - BY SERSE FORNI

One of Switzer­land’s largest cen­ters for asy­lum seek­ers has opened in a residential and touris­to­ri­ented town south of the Alps. Af­ter ini­tial feel­ings of re­sis­tance, a string of ini­tia­tives has helped to pro­mote a spirit of peace­ful co­ex­is­tence.

The mi­grants — refugees who have passed through Italy af­ter leav­ing Africa — are flee­ing hor­rific cir­cum­stances in their home­lands. They have left be­hind both loved ones and pos­ses­sions to em­bark on a per­ilous and fright­en­ing jour­ney. The Swiss fed­eral gov­ern­ment ar­ranges for them to be reg­is­tered and re­ceive a med­i­cal check-up at the bor­der town of Chiasso. They are then trans­ferred to other lo­ca­tions, where they may need to be housed for up to three months while await­ing a res­i­dence per­mit. One of Switzer­land’s largest ac­com­mo­da­tion cen­ters, with room for 170 guests, was opened on Oct. 20, 2014 in an old mil­i­tary bar­racks in Losone, a residential and tourist-ori­ented town with a pop­u­la­tion of around 6,000.

The lo­cals’ ini­tial re­sis­tance to the new­com­ers, ex­pressed in the form of griev­ances, pe­ti­tions and a se­ries of re­quests to the author­i­ties, has melted away in re­sponse to the warm smiles of the first guests. In just a few weeks a welcome net­work has de­vel­oped around the San Gior­gio ac­com­mo­da­tion cen­ter, as it is now called, in­volv­ing teams of both in­sti­tu­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tives and vol­un­teers. The re­sult has ex­ceeded even the most op­ti­mistic ex­pec­ta­tions. “This rep­re­sents a kind of model, an ex­am­ple to fol­low,” says An­to­nio Simona, who su­per­vises the cen­ter on be­half of the State Sec­re­tar­iat for Mi­gra­tion (the SEM). “Firstly, the peo­ple who ar­rive are given a pos­i­tive mes­sage. Se­condly, a spirit of peace­ful co-ex­is­tence is be­ing en­cour­aged be­tween the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion and the asy­lum seek­ers.”

The model, which is prov­ing re­mark­ably ef­fec­tive, in­volves three un­der­ly­ing el­e­ments. The first re­lates to the or­ga­ni­za­tion and man­age­ment of the cen­ter it­self, within which a range of dif­fer­ent ac­tiv­i­ties is or­ga­nized in­clud­ing sports and cre­ative work­shops, while guests can chat and play to­gether in the com­mon rooms. In ad­di­tion, there are chores, with the dif­fer­ent tasks di­vided up among the guests. Spir­i­tual sup­port is also avail­able for those who re­quest it.

The sec­ond el­e­ment con­sists of the Sup­port Group com­posed of lo­cal author­i­ties, SEM of­fi­cials and rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the pri­vate com­pany that man­ages the cen­ter. Losone town coun­cilors Fausto Fornera and Al­fredo Sol­dati ex­plain how this works: “It’s a plat­form for di­a­logue, which aims to find so­lu­tions to a wide va­ri­ety of is­sues both within a short timescale and of­ten in an in­for­mal way, too.” The town coun­cil has also been asked to ar­range a public work pro­gram, pro­vid­ing a form of em­ploy­ment for those guests who are keen to keep busy and earn some money. For 2015, plans have been made for them to work for a to­tal of 12,500 days. Ev­ery day, be­tween 25 and 30 peo­ple are be­ing em­ployed to carry out sim­ple tasks for a daily salary of 30 francs (US$32.49). “These jobs are highly val­ued by the asy­lum seek­ers,” Simona adds. “The work gives them back some dig­nity. In ad­di­tion, lo­cal peo­ple are happy to see the asy­lum seek­ers work­ing hard on the foot­paths, in the forests and in public spa­ces.”

The third el­e­ment of the Losone model con­sists of the Welcome Group. This was set up at the ini­tia­tive of around 25 vol­un­teers, who host be­tween 20 and 50 asy- lum seek­ers in a large room once a week to spend time to­gether play­ing games, chat­ting and un­der­tak­ing man­ual and cre­ative ac­tiv­i­ties. These en­coun­ters rep­re­sent a process of “give and take” for those in­volved — a chance to share ac­tiv­i­ties and dis­cus­sion with the aim of bring­ing com­fort to those in need. Such spe­cial op­por­tu­ni­ties help to cre­ate a pos­i­tive re­la­tion­ship be­tween peo­ple who may be far apart in terms of cul­ture but who are now close neigh­bors. “With the ar- ri­val of the warmer weather we’re also or­ga­niz­ing ex­cur­sions and trips around the re­gion,” ex­plains the vol­un­teers’ spokesper­son, An­to­nio Lisi. The kind sup­port from the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion is ex­pressed in a dis­play of sol­i­dar­ity aimed at ob­tain­ing clothes and es­sen­tial items such as toys, fur­ni­ture and a wide range of tools and uten­sils. These are col­lected and taken to the for­mer army bar­racks, where they are dis­trib­uted to those in need.

The guests at the cen­ter, most of whom come from African coun­tries (in­clud­ing Eritrea, Nige­ria, So­ma­lia and Sene­gal), ex­press their grat­i­tude for these acts of gen­eros­ity with an equally gen­er­ous spirit. They are grate­ful to those who are try­ing hard to help them feel at home.

There is, though, a flip side, in­clud­ing a few in­ci­dents that re­quired the po­lice be called to the cen­ter. Out­side the cen­ter there have been no clashes, how­ever. Within the lo­cal com­mu­nity some pock­ets of re­sis­tance to the new­com­ers still re­main, ex­pressed mainly in the form of fear-mon­ger­ing and at­tempts to fuel an­i­mos­ity on so­cial media.

Even so, this neg­a­tiv­ity is di­min­ish­ing over time in the face of what many see as an ex­am­ple of the warm welcome that, as on so many oc­ca­sions be­fore, has been given by Switzer­land — and by Ti­cino — to mi­grants flee­ing from hor­ri­fy­ing sit­u­a­tions in their coun­tries of ori­gin.

Ti Press/Pablo Gian­i­nazzi

Mo­ments of in­te­gra­tion be­tween asy­lum seek­ers and pop­u­la­tion in Losone, Ti­cino, south Switzer­land.

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