by Simon Bradley, swissinfo.ch
September 16, 2013 – 11:00
The Swiss government recently eased visa rules to help reunite Syrians from the war-torn state with their relatives in Switzerland. But what difference will this gesture make in practice? swissinfo.ch gauges the temperature among Syrian expats. “It’s a really good thing; the process is now much easier,” says Ashti Amir, a Syrian from Aleppo who lives near Bern with his wife and three children.
Amir has been struggling to keep in touch with relatives in Syria and neighbouring countries who have been split up by the conflict. He has had no contact with one of his brothers or parents from Aleppo for about one year.
But following recent government changes he says he has spoken to his sister who fled to Turkey with her children and to his sister-in-law about coming to Switzerland.
On September 4 Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga announced two major decisions concerning Syrian refugees. Switzerland plans to welcome a contingent of 500 extremely vulnerable people from Syria over the next three years following a request by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
It has also widened the circle of Syrian family members allowed to apply for a visa to travel to Switzerland to be reunited with relatives. Those eligible now include children aged over 18, parents, grandparents, grandchildren and brothers and sisters instead of just partners and children under 18.
Facts and figures
More than two million people have now fled Syria’s civil war, most of them to neighbouring countries, the UN says. Another 4.25 million people have been displaced inside Syria.
The war has killed more than 100,000 people over the past 30 months.
Switzerland has taken in more than 70 UNHCR refugees from the Syrian conflict since 2012 and has promised to take in 500 more. A first group of people fleeing the conflict in Syria is expected to arrive in Switzerland next month.
The Solidarity Chain, the fundraising arm of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, has collected CHF13 million for the aid projects benefiting victims of the Syrian civil war.
The justice minister says procedures will be sped up and relaxed.
“From the point of view of rescuing lives quickly this is a much more important decision [than the quota of 500 refugees] and it also sends a signal to other countries,” said Beat Meiner, secretary-general of the Swiss Refugee Council.
Once a Syrian’s 90-day tourist visa to Switzerland runs out, he or she can file a residency or asylum request to stay. At present rejected applicants are not sent back to Syria owing to the ongoing conflict and are granted temporary residence.
It is unclear how many family members will now make the journey to Switzerland. The visa changes are only intended for family members of Syrians already living in Switzerland who have either a residence permit or Swiss nationality, and not for those with temporary residence. There are thought to be about 6,000 Syrians living in Switzerland, of whom about 1,600 have regular residence permits.
Meiner thought “hundreds” of Syrians in Switzerland might be interested in trying to bring in relatives. “We have received many calls from Syrians in Switzerland asking about this issue,” he explained.
“Only wealthy people”
Syrian expats swissinfo.ch spoke to generally welcomed the decision but many said the heavy financial burden of welcoming family members to the expensive alpine nation was a major obstacle.
“It’s not easy. First there’s the airline ticket, then insurance and accommodation. Only wealthy people can bring in relatives,” said Ali Zeda, a Syrian mechanic who lives in Prilly with his wife and four children. “It’s much better if the Swiss help the Syrians where they are, like in Lebanon, Egypt or Jordan.”
Raymond Arbach, a Syrian who has lived in Switzerland for 30 years, echoed this: “I’ve got cousins who are in permanent danger but I can’t take advantage of these new measures as I can’t look after them when they arrive. That costs lots of money and I just can’t afford it.”
Amir, who works as a counsellor for Syrian refugees in Switzerland, said additional help might actually be available from private Swiss individuals. He said he knew of Swiss people living in Bern and Basel who had already offered to accommodate Syrian refugees in their own homes and this idea was going to be pursued.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) announced in June in its 2013 Syria Regional Response Plan that it is seeking 10,000 places for humanitarian admission and 2,000 places for resettlement of Syrians in acute need.
Since then Germany and Austria have committed places for humanitarian admission (5,000 and 500 respectively).
Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland have also offered places. Together these countries have pledged more than 1,650 resettlement places, 960 of which are for 2013. The United States of America has indicated that it is willing to consider an additional unspecified number of cases.
Living in limbo
The Swiss decisions provoked a range of reactions from swissinfo.ch readers.
“The Swiss have more ethical and humanitarian values than any Arab country,” said one reader on the Arabic Facebook page. “I haven’t found any Gulf country that has opened its doors to our Syrian brothers. May God protect this country [Switzerland].”
But others felt Switzerland should prioritise Syrians who had applied for asylum and were living in the alpine nation awaiting a decision on their status.
“The Swiss should first accord residence permits to those living here for the past three years, then they could open door to immigration,” said another reader.
Between March 2011 and July 2013, 372 Syrians were granted refugee status and 758 were given temporary admission. Some 2,825 applications are currently being dealt with by the Federal Migration Office and between 50-100 new requests are made a month.
But some Syrians seeking asylum in Switzerland complain about living in limbo without a clear status, unable to work and feel a lack of priority is given to their applications. Meanwhile, others are unhappy about living for years in asylum accommodation.
Last week around 300 Syrian asylum seekers held a peaceful sit-in outside the Federal Migration Office near Bern in protest at the authorities’ “inexplicable reserve” in dealing with their cases. A dozen had reportedly started a hunger strike.
“Why is it taking them so long to answer our requests? We can’t live a humane life or integrate properly in Switzerland with an N residence permit [application being processed but unable to work]. We urgently need a stable residence permit,” said protestor Esam Al-Omar.
The consequences can be dramatic. A Swiss refugee aid specialist who wished to remain anonymous said Syrians, many very young, come to Switzerland with lots of hopes but become depressed due to the long wait and require psychiatric treatment.
In publicising their protest, the demonstrators have pointed to the case of Sweden, which at the beginning of September became the first European country to offer all Syrian refugees in the country permanent residency due to the extreme situation. Some Syrians in Sweden had to date been granted temporary residence. The Scandinavian country has received almost 15,000 Syrian refugees in 2012 and 2013.
Swiss Federal Migration Office director Mario Gattiker has met the demonstrators and promised that applications made before 2009 would be dealt with by the end of the year. Another meeting is planned this week about applications filed after 2009.
Simon Bradley, swissinfo.ch
(With input from Abdelhafidh Abdeleli and Islah Bakhat)