One of the few Kenyans living in asylum

UN REPORTAGE DE MATILDA NZIOKI EN SUISSE - MEDIA DE REFERENCE : THE STANDARD NAIROBI, Publié dans Matilda Nzioki, Kenya

Karen Atieno, dans sa chambre du Foyer de Bex.

Karen Atieno, dans sa chambre du Foyer de Bex.

We met 28 year-old Karen Atieno who has been in asylum in Switzerland for five years. Karen went to Switzerland to visit a friend she had met while working in a hotel in Uganda. After a few days, she realised it was a bad idea as her host who was a Kenyan living in Switzerland did not treat her as she expected. She insisted that he book her a ticket to go back home as agreed but he declined. A short while later, she could not take it anymore and the two got into a fight that attracted neighbours’ attention. The police were called and Karen’s friend was forced to book her a flight back home. Just as she was preparing to travel back, Kenya plunged into the infamous post election violence and she couldn’t travel back home. That is when she decided to seek asylum in Switzerland.

Odd is it for Kenyans to be heard seeking asylum that when she arrived at one centre in Switzerland, authorities had to call the representation home office to confirm that this indeed was a Kenyan.

The first born in a family of five stayed at an asylum home in Geneva for three months before moving to Lausanne where she stayed in two different asylum homes. During this time, she undertook integration French classes. One year later, her asylum application was rejected on grounds that Kenya had stabilised. She decided to appeal this decision.

“At this time, I felt like so much time had passed and there was nothing for me to come home to. Besides, I had already integrated into the Swiss culture,” Karen explained. Asylum seekers are entitled to a lawyer to assist with appeals.

Five years later, with her appeal still rejected, she lives with her nine-month baby in asylum, now in Foyer De Bex, another asylum home in Bex, a fairly small town in the Vaud canton of Switzerland. She receives a stipend granted to asylum seekers holding her licence.

Her room in the asylum home resembles the regular bedsitter of a Nairobi dweller. She has a TV, mini fridge, a microwave and a few other appliances all in one room. The place is more hostel-like with shared amenities; toilets, bathrooms and kitchens, the latter which closes at 10pm. This she states is one of the challenges she has faced living in asylum. “It can be very tough, I have friends who have had to see psychiatrists.”

Karen points out other stressing factors being that one has no right to work when on asylum, they are not allowed to be away from the home for more than five days without the consent of authorities, having to live on a very tight budget from the funds given if any, and missing one’s family members.

In that case why would she want to put herself through it since the Swiss government gives a certain kind of support to asylum seekers who willingly decide to go back home?

“There are also positives; I love the country, it is organised, peaceful and secure, and I have been well taken care of here. If my baby or I were to fall sick now, an ambulance would be here in no minute. Besides, if one has nothing to hide and has no shoddy business in Switzerland, they can survive,” she comments. The institution Karen is under, Etablissement Vaudois d’Accueil des Migrants (EVAM) that hosts immigrants, provides health insurance to every migrant.

Interestingly, in a bid to protect their borders, the Swiss people this year voted unanimously in favour of tightened asylum laws via referendum. The controversial decision comes with refugee applications having risen to their highest level in more than a decade. Many feel that majority of the people who seek asylum in the country do it for economic reasons.

With the new stricter laws, individuals can no longer apply for asylum at Swiss embassies abroad as used to happen. This means that for instance, the many Somali nationals who have been making their way to Nairobi to apply for asylum in Switzerland may now have to make the journey from their home country to Switzerland without government help.

Also, conscientious objection is no longer considered grounds for seeking asylum. This is also termed as military desertion. Eritrea imposes unlimited and low-paid military service on all able-bodied men. For Eritreans, who accounted for the most asylum applications last year in Switzerland, military desertion was the most-cited reason.

The revisions recommend fast tracking decisions of asylum applicants to avoid leaving people and their families for long periods of time wallowing in uncertainty. It also allows for a "special centre" to be built for "unruly" refugees who are considered troublemakers.

With the new laws, Switzerland will allow asylum seekers’ forced repatriation to be overseen by independent organisations and will restrict the use of restraints on deportees.

Amnesty International and Swiss leaders opposing the referendum cited disregard to human rights and that the new laws weaken the humanitarian tradition of Switzerland.

The Swiss government says that for every 332 inhabitants, one is an asylum seeker, a rate well above the European average of one for every 625 inhabitants. In the asylum applications in Europe in 2012, Switzerland was ranked number four after Germany, France and Sweden.

This particular institution in Bex where Karen resides is home to about 200 asylum seekers-representing roughly 35 nationalities. Majority are from Macedonia, 20 in total. There are also 11 Nigerians, 16 Serbians, six Ethiopians, and 13 Eritreans. Other nations represented include Brazil, China, Mongolia, Senegal and Russia. Karen says that in the few homes she has been to, there are usually one other or no Kenyan at all.

Large numbers of asylum seekers arriving in Switzerland recently have forced the government to open army facilities to host them. According to Christine Blatti, head of the home in Bex and others in the east side of Switzerland, this one that Karen dwells in hosted internees during the two world wars. These were people confined as prisoners for military reasons.

Blatti explains the different stages one goes through in their application, and the different licences they hold at these stages such as Permi N (meaning Licence N), Permi B and Permi C, which is like the US green card.

“At the end of the process, asylum applicants who obtain refugee status have a B license and are not assisted by EVAM but the social integration of refugees Centre (CSIR). Those who are unsuccessful in their asylum applications are no longer entitled to emergency assistance, unless they obtain a provisional admission, in which case additional integration measures are planned,” she states, adding that a major challenge the organisation faces is the ‘disappearing into thin air’ of some applicants during the process.

Another notable challenge the home has faced is hostility from the neighbourhood, especially at the point of set up. Residents had fears of moral degradation of their children, usually associated with immigrants in Switzerland. There were also reservations of a rise in crime rates linked to people seeking refugee status that are usually not economically empowered.

She says asylum seekers are put up in a home or apartments and attend language classes, prevocational training and other short courses that entail learning of the Swiss culture in general, to help the migrants integrate into the country. When granted refugee status, the asylum home in most cases helps the individuals access employment.

People who receive emergency aid such as Karen (rejected asylum seekers) do not have the right to work. The emergency aid is approximately 400 CHF (Sh38,000) per month for a single individual and 1,500 CHF (Sh143,000) for a family of four.

Since the new laws will take a while before gaining full force, Karen plans that in case a decision on her status has not been arrived at this year, she will come back home and get married to the father of her baby, a Swiss resident who also holds French nationality, and who she has dated for the past three years.