The Sorry State of Asylum Seekers [OPINION]

Violence against migrants is on the rise, but why are the privileged in Europe so scared of those in need?

Mayor Arno Buergi poses inside a sleeping room at a subterranean shelter used as temporary asylum center on August 14, 2013 in Kestenholz. Police proceeded this week to remove 10 asylum seekers who had been camping out for days at the Solothurn train station in northwestern Switzerland in protest against their living conditions in a subterranean bunker in Kestenholz they described as “unworthy of a human being”. Switzerland, which prides itself on its humanitarian principles, is facing a barrage of criticism over its treatment of asylum seekers.

Racism sleeps lightly in its European cradle — and lately, not at all. Where to start? With the UKIP MEP Godfrey Bloom, who is not, as the Telegraph reported, “a fringe member of a fringe party”, but a populist monster who hides his ferocity behind the cretinism of the golf club and decries aid to “bongo bongo land?” Of what white Europeans did to “bongo bongo land” Bloom neither knows nor cares; he cannot acknowledge that to justify racism, one must dehumanise the victim, now as then. Bloom should read King Leopold’s Ghost, Adam Hochschild’s history of what Belgium did to Congo, but he won’t.

Or perhaps we should start with Oprah Winfrey, who was barred from touching a $35,000 (Dh128,730) handbag in a Zurich boutique she patronised on a trip to attend Tina Turner’s wedding? This is important, a testament to the tenacity of racism in otherwise gilded circumstances, a politicised Pretty Woman, a rom com gone wrong. Or with the Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg’s appearance at the Traditional Britain Group (TBG), which has called for the deportation of Doreen Lawrence? Rees-Mogg was educated at Eton College and Oxford and was warned of the TBG’s views by the anti-fascist group Searchlight, but claimed ignorance anyway. Ah, ignorance and misunderstanding and shock!

I prefer to stay in Switzerland, lovely Switzerland, land of chocolates and clinics and cuckoo clocks; Switzerland, the fourth richest country in the world by GDP, with an unemployment rate loitering at 3 per cent. What looming chaos threatens its calm and monetised slumber?

Recently we learned that asylum seekers are to be banned from 32 public spaces in the town of Bremgarten in the canton of Aargau, where they are housed in former military barracks for the processing of their claims: From the swimming pool, the daycare centre, the casino, the retirement home and even from the churches — although the priests, to their credit, have objected. (What the casino has said about their admission policy in relation to the desires of the Swiss Office for Migration, which is now swiftly and amusingly back-peddling, I do not know.)

“For security reasons,” says Raymond Tellenbach, the Mayor of Bremgarten, presumably reading from the international handbook of hug the perpetrator and blame the victim, “we decided to make these areas inaccessible in order to avert potential conflict and primarily to prevent the consumption of drugs. We are not inhuman.” I disagree. To restrict the movement of bedevilled strangers is inhuman; and this restriction is a trend mirrored in other Swiss towns. Asylum seekers are depraved, drug-addled and a justifiable cause of sexual anxiety, is the line. They are verboten.

The fear with which the fortunate contemplate the unfortunate is baffling, but it is dogged. Advocates for asylum seekers across Europe report the following trends: A rise in verbal intimidation and physical violence towards asylum seekers, even as it remains an under-reported and under-investigated crime; increased cuts in funding for NGOs supporting asylum seekers (most recently the Spanish Commission for the Assistance of Refugees is threatened), so asylum seekers are unaware of their legal rights; a lack of reception capacity. So asylum seekers are destitute while their cases are heard; a refusal to let asylum seekers land in Europe, which often results in their deaths. (As the case of Jimmy Mubenga, who died on a repatriation flight to Angola in 2010, reminds us, they die going in the other direction too.)

The UN refugee agency says that 1,500 people drowned, or were reported missing, trying to cross the Mediterranean in 2011. According to the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, last week, 102 people on a vessel originating in Libya, including pregnant women and children, were denied entry to Malta and waited helplessly at sea. They stayed there for two days while countries squabbled. Eventually Italy took them in.

There is also indefinite detention, a cruel, expensive and fruitless policy at which the British particularly excel. When it is too dangerous to deport asylum seekers, for instance, to Somalia and Zimbabwe, the British government allows them to be detained without end, from torture to torture, if you will. According to the charity Detention Action, 4,373 asylum seekers, including children, were detained in 2011. As a continent, Europe should be ashamed of its inhumanity as it bubbles and boils around itself; but who cares when Godfrey Bloom is speaking idiocy to idiots? We have chosen our ancient scapegoats; now let them bleed.

—  Tanya Gold is a freelance journalist (Guardian News & Media Ltd)