Swiss start to draw the line on refugees. Influx of 10,000 a year strains government, sparks tension
Bern — Rajah is a long way from the warm coastal town in Sri Lanka where he grew up. At 7 o'clock every morning he leaves his chalet room in a Swiss alpine village and faces a short, snowy march before serving breakfast to hungry skiers.
``He's one of the best workers we've ever had,'' his employer says.
But no one knows how long he will stay. Rajah (not his real name) likes his new life, but will not talk about his dreams for the future - it is too uncertain.
Nor will he talk about his past - it is still too early to trust people in his new hometown. Rajah's fate will be decided in the next three or four months by the Swiss government, to which he has applied for political asylum.
There are about 4,000 Tamils like Rajah in Switzerland whose status is pending. They are one of the largest groups in the flood of refuge-seekers who have come here in the past three years.
Since 1983, nearly 10,000 people a year - a dramatic increase - have sought asylum here. The sudden rush of applicants has put a strain on the government and provoked tension between groups who feel the country has a humanitarian obligation to help refugees and those who feel many would-be refugees are seeking economic, rather than political, stability.
A popular referendum has been scheduled for April 5 to vote on proposals that would tighten the laws governing refugees. Among its points: In times of refugee influxes, the government could take extreme measures; demands for asylum could not be made from inside the country; the confederation would have the right to redistribute refugees among the cantons (the Swiss states).
This is the first such vote in Western Europe, but Switzerland is not alone with this problem. Every West European country has been swamped by refugees, most of whom come from Asia. Recently several governments met here in Bern to coordinate their work.
Refugees have become an issue here partly because, with a population of only 6 million, Switzerland has the highest number of refugees per capita in Europe. The Swiss have long prided themselves on keeping unemployment at a minimum (less than 1 percent) by a double policy of short hours during national recessions or company troubles and limiting the number of foreign workers allowed into the country.
There is a growing sentiment among European officials that many asylum-seekers are in fact economic and not political refugees.
According to Peter Arbenz, the Swiss minister for refugees, ``we must determine whether they are looking for a better life or really seeking protection.... [Asylum is not granted] to people who are fighting a civil war only with their fear.''
In Switzerland, only 12 to 15 percent of all applicants are recognized as refugees after the screening process. Afghans are the most likely candidates for acceptance: 75 percent are recognized. Only 5 percent of Tamils receive asylum.
Officials at the UN High Commission for Refugees agree that economic reasons lie behind many refugees' coming to Europe.
A spokesman says, ``It is because of the development of means of transportation, but also the breakdown in the North-South dialogue. Refugees prefer, if they are going to a another country, to go to Europe rather than a neighboring country.'' Switzerland, he adds, is especially attractive because of its prosperity. But the Swiss, with no colonial history, may be less prepared than some Europeans to accept this sudden rush of foreigners into their country.
And, he notes, when officials see that some applicants are not legitimate, they are stricter with everyone.
``It is essential to find a system that unmasks those who take advantage of the process without penalizing the real refugees,'' the spokesman says.
There have not been major racial conflicts here, as has been the case elsewhere, possibly because unemployment is not yet a problem.
But the country is spending an estimated 300 million Swiss francs ($194 million) a year to process applications and settle those accepted. An applicant is given room and board plus pocket money during the six months or so the government takes to rule on his case, although some are allowed to work after three months. Costs are shared by federal and cantonal governments. But the bulk of refugees go to three or four cities, and the imbalance has created some tension.
One result of the influx of people into Europe has been the growth of groups of migrant 'emigr'es, people whose refugee status is rejected and who then drift from one country to the next. Overworked government agencies are often uncertain where the refugees have come from.
According to Mr. Arbenz, the Bern meeting was one of a a series to help governments deal with the ``irregular movement of refugees, those who don't meet the definition.''
Most arrive without any identification, and it is a problem ``sorting out the real refugees from those who've picked up their story in Germany, for example, from other refugees. Many come here for asylum, but they weren't tortured, persecuted, or arrested. We only grant asylum to people personally persecuted by the state.''
The strain put on the system caused the Swiss government to boost its resources during the past three years. The number of employees in the Police and Justice Department, which handles applications, was increased from 20 to 190. At the end of 1985, there was a backlog of 14,000 old cases, plus 6,000 pending cases less than a year old.
The department changed its tactics.
``The newest cases are being taken first, because we need to show we'll deal with cases quickly. If someone is coming here for economic reasons and he thinks he can stay here three to four years, he will come,'' Arbenz says.
But there is a delicate political issue at stake: Should people who fear to return home be sent back? The Swiss press has carried several front-page stories about rejected applicants put on planes home to Zaire or Tamils not allowed to enter the country, and these have garnered much sympathy and outrage. The government says its job is only to enforce the law as it now stands: Political and not economic refuees are accepted.
For Rajah, the knowledge that the odds are against him makes for a quiet, bittersweet winter in the snowy Alps while he awaits the verdict.