Hefty 99.5 percent Nigerians have no chance of staying in Switzerland, says new director
Bern, Switzerland (GenevaLunch) – Alard du Bois-Reymond, director of Switzerland’s Office for Migration, has been on the job only since 1 January 2010, but if remarks he made to Swiss-German media over the weekend are a sign of what is to come, tensions over the country’s refugees policy could rise. The director told NZZ newspaper that his office will be setting up a task force which will bring together federal and cantonal offices to resolve what he referred to as Switzerland’s number one migration problem: Nigerians, the majority of whom are involved in petty crime and drug trafficking, he says.
“These people aren’t coming to Switzerland as refugees, but to make money”, he told NZZ, noting that 99.5 percent of Nigerians have no chance of being allowed to stay in the country.
His remarks prompted numerous negative reactions ranging from outrage to wonder that the head of a government office would stigmatize another nationality. Even populist media such as Le Matin went out of their way to point out that not all Nigerians are criminals, which du Bois-Reymond appeared to imply, interviewing asylum-seekers from Nigeria to tell their stories.
The Nigerian dilemma a complex one
Du Bois-Reymond’s comments may have been aimed at reassuring conservative elements in Swiss politics about reducing the number of illegal immigrants and reducing crime, several observers told GenevaLunch, but they have stirred up a complex debate.
Beat Meiner, secretary general of Osar (Swiss Refugee Council) says that while crime appears to be a problem, and that has to be dealt with, it’s also a a problem if the Swiss Migration Office lumps together as criminals all Nigerian refugee-seekers. “What we don’t feel is correct is to say that all Nigerians are criminals – but I don’t know if that’s what he really meant. There are, of course, plenty of Nigerians who came here legally, work here, have families, and now they are part of a stigmatized group.”
Blanket associations between asylum seekers and crime: cause for concern says UNHCR
Susin Park, the head of UNHCR’s (UN High Commissioner for Refugees) office for Switzerland and Liechtenstein, says the UN organization is aware that a large number of Nigerian applicants for asylum in Switzerland have been found not to be in need of international protection.
“If their claims have been reviewed on a fair basis and rejected, then we don’t have a problem with that; returns are part of a credible asylum system. However, there are also areas in Nigeria where people have reason to flee, and that has to be kept in mind, too. We are also concerned about generalized associations between asylum seekers and crime including abuse of the asylum system – that association is made a lot.”
Nigerians largest asylum-seeking group, doubled numbers in 2009
Du Bois-Reymond may in fact have been referring to actual 2009 figures: government numbers for last year show that Nigerians were the largest group of Africans applying for asylum, with 1,786 requests. Only one person was recognized as a refugee under Geneva Convention rules and just six others were given provisional protected status because they could face dangerous situations if they returned home.
Meiner agrees with Park that Nigeria is indeed a country that is creating legitimate refugees. It is larger than Germany and France put together, with more than 400 ethnic groups, mainly Muslims in the north and Christians in the south. There are strong tensions due to these differences, which are exacerbated by the economic situation: 90 percent of the country’s income is from oil exports, but only 1 percent of the population benefits from it and 84 percent of the population survives on less than $2 a day, according to a newly updated Osar report on Nigeria (Ger). Life expectancy has been falling and is now only 45 years. The rest of the economy, other than oil exports, is largely ignored, says the report.
“And then we have a very bad situation for human rights. In the past 10 years many people have lost their lives in conflicts, there are a couple million internally displaced persons living as refugees in their own country. There are many reasons to flee Nigeria. So this makes one ponder, why on the one hand we have such a difficult situation there but on the other hand these refugee numbers, for those accepted, are so low,” says Meiner.
Crime a problem, but needs to be kept in perspective say Nigerians
Du Bois-Reymond’s numbers outraged Mark Bamidele, president and CEO of the African Mirror Foundation, which recently set up an online African TV and radio service based in Bern. Bamidele says that while a majority of Nigerian refugee seekers are involved in petty crime it’s not 99.5 percent of those seeking asylum and “these are not drug dealers, they are boys peddling on the streets because it’s the only way they see to make some money. A lot of times they’ve never done this before.” Bamidele argues that Switzerland has to take more of the blame, since drugs are a problem of Swiss society. He believes more can be done to help with integration but also with weeding out crime, starting with the Swiss government working more closely with its resident Nigerian population.
“Why don’t they talk to the community” instead of arresting and trying to deport Nigerians, a process that can be lengthy. “If I go up to a Nigerian brother and I say, ‘look, if you want to stay in Switzerland, this isn’t the way to go about it’ he’ll listen to me.”
African Mirror is helping give Nigerians a voice, part of broader efforts by the Nigerian community to improve integration. After the death of a Nigerian at Zurich Airport shortly before he was deported, the foundation’s TV station interviewed the head of Switzerland’s Return Programme, Urs Von Arb, about the circumstances (interview in English) surrounding the death, offering a perspective different from that of Swiss media.
Beat Meiner agrees that the problem could be helped by the Nigerian community being more involved. “If the Nigerians in Switzerland could play this role it would be very good, as it’s important that Nigerian asylum seekers can find someone they can trust,” he says, pointing to similar work done with Kosovo refugees by the resident Kosovar community. But as he and another refugee organization observer noted, the reality is that those turned down as refugees are illegal immigrants, and there is no legal way for them to make money and stay.
Why the problems of many applicants, too few recognized refugees won’t be solved easily
The solution to the criminality problem is mired down by several difficulties, most of which are shared by other countries in Europe that welcome refugees:
- It is often hard to uncover the real identity of an asylum seeker
- The Swiss government in 95 percent of cases says the applicant does not qualify for refugee status, although these cases may continue to be reviewed under broader protection criteria. In half of these cases, according to Osar, a European agreement, the “Dublin Regulation”, assigns responsibility for them to another country, often Italy. Federal government statistics show that from 12 December 2008, when the Dublin agreement went into effect, until the end of December 2009, Switzerland asked other countries to accept responsibility for [ed. note: all, not just Nigerian] refugees in 6,041 cases and the request was accepted in 4,950 cases
- The number of Nigerian refugees rose from about 989 in 2008 to 1,786 in 2009. Some NGO observers believe that the massive increase could be due to racial and economic tensions in southern Italy, causing many Nigerians who had been there one to four years to move north, although there is no clear proof this is the case
- The interviews with the bulk of Nigerian asylum seekers are not convincing, but no one has yet figured out why they appear so unwilling to tell their own stories, says Osar.
Osar is an umbrella organization whose members, such as Caritas, work with refugees. Some 30 percent of its funding comes from the Swiss federal government because it coordinates the work of the NGO (non-governmental oganization) witnesses who participate in the interviews that are part of the asylum application process. The rest of its funding is private or comes from organizations, and its work involves informing the public about refugees and training people involved in refugee work.
Bulk of Nigerian asylum seekers remain a mystery
Meiner says that the information coming in from the various NGOs and legal groups involved in the interviews is that “the stories these Nigerians tell are not good – they are not differentiated, they’re too short, they often seem to be made up, stereotyped. We don’t really understand why this is so. They are mostly men, with no families, no women, and they come from the southern part of the country.” He says Osar finds it hard to believe they are sent by organized crime gangs. “This doesn’t seem logical to us. Many of them take a long time before they come here from Nigeria, and then they have no income when they arrive.”
He argues that fears of black magic and voodoo reprisals back home might account for some of the fear of saying who they really are, since this can be very strong in Nigeria. There may also be heavy pressure on them from those back home who helped raise the funds to come to Switzerland.
“The biggest problem, though, is identifying them. And we don’t really know if this new task force will be able to help with that,” says Meiner, who qualifies Du Bois-Remond’s remarks as “very strong.” He notes that the director made another “very strong and dangerous’ statement in the NZZ interview, that of the 350,000 Muslims in Switzerland 10,000 are radical. “There is no proof of this anywhere.”
New Migration head no foreigner to ferreting out abuse
Du Bois-Reymond is no stranger to heated debates over foreigners, but he comes to the Migration Office with a strong background in developing countries and Africa in particular. He is a native of Neuchatel, holds an economics degree in public finance and he pursued post-graduate studies at the Polytechnic Institute in Zurich, in developing economies. He then worked for several years for the ICRC (International Red Cross) in a number of African countries and former Yugoslavia before he became head of Pro Infirmis in Switzerland, a job he held for six years. He then became the association director of the Swiss Social Security Office, responsible for the AI (disability insurance) during a period when the office was mandated by the government to cut down on the number of abuses in the system, following a citizen’s vote for this.
A high priority for the office was to look into abuses by foreigners who benefited from the system.
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