Swiss border town complains of refugee problems

Earlier this year (2011), the mayor of Chiasso, in the canton of Ticino, wrote to the Federal Council in Bern to explain why the town didn’t want an asylum center anymore. He said it was because refugee crime was a burden. It was as much a plea for help as it was a provocation. On the border with Italy, some see Chiasso and its 8,000 residents on the front line of a growing Swiss angst over asylum seekers. WRS’s Tony Ganzer reports: (scroll down for an update from 2013)

Tiny jets of water fire from a fountain embedded in one of Chiasso’s central squares. Diverse groups of young men sit casually staring at the ground, then at passers-by, then at each other. Some laugh, some smoke, and according to town vice mayor Roberta Pantani Tettamanti, some have bothered local businesses.

TETTAMANTI: “We receive some complaining from people working in Chiasso. Also from banks, as often some asylum seekers in front of their doors. And you can understand that people coming into a bank, maybe they are afraid.”

Tettamanti sits in Chiasso’s pink city building, a few blocks from the fountain and bank. A pair of federally funded, private security guards patrol outside, in the shadow of the San Vitale church. Tettamanti says refugees from Lampedusa have disrupted the city.

TETTAMANTI: “A couple of times a month you see some fights. They fight between themselves because of drunkenness—this is a big problem with them, because they don’t have to do anything during the day.”

Chiasso has always had asylum seekers, for at least 60 years. From Milan, through Como, Chiasso is the first Swiss town on the southern rail line. Police commander Nicolas Poncini says the problem is not refugees in general, or the asylum center, rather the motivations of some of the refugees.


PONCINI: “We had waves of Kosovo, for example, a few years ago, but everything went smooth, from a crime point of view of course.  Now we have many Nigerian refugees, maybe from two or three years now. Most of them came here very well organized and they have clear goals to deal with dopes and drugs and so.”

Poncini says the problems are cyclical: a few months flooded by refugees, a few months without. And he is adamant—he and his 35 officers don’t think all refugees are criminal, or all Nigerians, or all Libyans. But an increase in crime was evident.

PONCINI: “This is caused by the second wave of refugees which came this year—this is the north African refugees who came to Chiasso. And, uh, they were very aggressive, and had strange habits. I mean, uh, they don’t care about peeing in the streets, or stealing, or drinking.”

A few meters from the steps of San Vitale church sit two black men on a concrete wall. Both are dressed casually—jeans, polo shirts.  Both came from North Africa, through Italy, into Switzerland. One of the men, from Nigeria, said poor conditions in Italy pushed him North.

NIGERIAN MAN: “They say that they have to help asylum seeker in the land of Europe, but they don’t take proper care for us. As me, I am a young boy, for me, now, I am supposed to focus my life, maybe study in school, thinking about a brighter future to live. But they leave every black man in the street.”

A Swiss refugee processing center in Chiasso.
A Swiss refugee processing center in Chiasso.

The man sitting next to him came through Lampedusa 2 years ago from Libya. He’s been in Chiasso two weeks, waiting for more details on his asylum request. But all he expects to get in Switzerland is time.

LIBYAN MAN: “They are don’t giving somebody document. They really spend, give some time; they give us three months, four months to stay. After that they deport us back to Italy. That is just everything. We are just suffering. We need a better life to live.”

The men complain of benefits and conditions in Switzerland, but also of racism. They say police often target refugees, and police commander Poncini doesn’t deny it. But, he says, only with probable cause.

PONCINI: “We don’t have to see Chiasso as…Tijuana or some (inaudible). We have this refugee center, we have this cyclic problem who comes and goes. We have no, no racist population in Chiasso.”


PONCINI: “But we have to keep the thing safe, and we don’t want to have people which are coming here already organized to bring crime in Chiasso.”

Chiasso has tried implementing fixes of its own, for example starting a refugee worker program, but such things are under federal jurisdiction. Vice Mayor Roberta Pantani Tettamanti says between local, cantonal and federal officials all with different perspectives and duties, its complicated. She says Chiasso’s situation may not have been forgotten in Bern, but perhaps misunderstood.

Two years later (as of 2013) the situation in Chiasso appeared to have improved.  WRS’S Tony Ganzer returned to the Italian border to see what had changed:

PONCINI: “Well we have Denner here. The Denner is one of the main supplies of hard alcohol.”

Chiasso police commander Nicolas Poncini tours the hang-outs and trouble spots for some asylum seekers in his town. Crime rates are cyclical, as are the numbers of asylum seekers at the local center, but he says one constant problem has been with drunkenness.

PONCINI: “Sometimes real drunk people go back to the center, and the center doesn’t accept them anymore, because they don’t want problem in the center with drunk people. They are drunk, the center doesn’t accept them, the canton police don’t want to put them in jail, so we don’t know what to do with them.”

Poncini says Chiasso hit a peak two years ago, as asylum seekers hit the Ticino border after traveling from North Africa through Italy. Since then, and since Chiasso’s letter to the federal government complaining about crime, added private security and refugee worker programs have eased tension here.

PONCINI: “Right now today, as we are speaking, there is no stress at all…not yet. If we didn’t have this [asylum] registration center of course we would have no problem at all. This registration center is not an advantage for Chiasso, definitely. It is like a town having a nuclear central, or something, it is there, no one wants it.”

Sign outside the refugee processing center in Chiasso.
Sign outside the refugee processing center in Chiasso.

PANTANI: “It always depends on the types of asylum seekers, but anyway the situation at the moment is better.”

Roberta Pantani was vice mayor two years ago, and she has since been elected to the National Council.

PANTANI: “The changement was that I was in the National Council, and in that commission where we spoke about these work programs. I brought the experience of Chiasso. Everything is going better now it’s better not to say it too loud, because you never know.”

One part of Chiasso’s success has been a voucher program, giving asylum seekers coupons instead of cash to dissuade alcohol abuse. Pantani also points to a work program as having an impact. A dozen or two asylum seekers can volunteer to work in town, and interact with the community—interaction that police and politicians say is important.

MOHAMAD (sic): “My name is Mohamad Adryss from Pakistan…[in] Switzerland 17 days.”

Mohamad Adryss says he is an Ahmadiyaa Muslim from Pakistan, seeking asylum in Switzerland. He stands talking to another asylum seeker who is part of the town work program. Adryss’ acquaintance did not want to be interviewed.

MOHAMAD: “I don’t know Switzerland rules. Maybe my transfer, or other interviews. I don’t know I am allowed to stay here. I pray to God am allowed to stay.”


BOLZ: “The situation of Chiasso is particular because it is a location of one of the centers of reception of asylum seekers.”

Susanne Bolz is the head of the legal department at the Swiss Refugee Council. She acknowledges the successes seen in Chiasso, but ahead of a referendum on tougher asylum laws, she isn’t sure all measures seen in there can be broadened nationally, like those focusing on alcoholism.

BOLZ: “I think that this makes sense to ease the current situation, but of course it is not something you could apply as a general rule to everybody. We should not forget that most asylum seekers behave appropriately and correctly, and so it’s not proportionate to punish everybody for mistakes made by few.”

Back in Chiasso, police commander Poncini recognizes that crime two years ago was an extreme, that could not be dealt with for an extended period.

PONCINI: “It would be like the far West here. Because at some time it became very tricky. We had these North Africans which were very tough people, hard drinking, violent. If we had just families, like we had maybe at the Kosovo time or years ago, that would be really not a problem at all.”

Poncini would like to see changes to the penal code to allow his officers to punish asylum seekers who break the law. Right now he says he can do very little. But any change to the penal code would be slow going, and before that could happen, voters on June 9 will decide on whether emergency measures for tougher rules and other reforms should stay on the books.

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