A network for asylum seekers: the ‘Losone’ model
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.
Moments of integration between asylum seekers and population in Losone, Ticino, south Switzerland.