On my way to meet a friend for some thrift-store shopping about a week ago (yes, thrift stores do exist here in Geneva – more on that later), I witnessed a protest taking place in Place Neuve against the housing of asylum seekers in bunkers (aka reinforced underground shelters).

In Switzerland, you’ll find a bunker in the basement of virtually any home or building. Most were built in reaction to the nuclear threats of the Cold War era. Today the Swiss government still argues for their utility in the (unlikely) event of armed conflict, terrorist attacks, chemical accidents or natural disasters.

In the meantime, while we wait for some disaster to plague the ever-‘neutral’ Swiss, the bunkers are being used to house the homeless and others seeking asylum in Switzerland. While for some homeless, the bunkers are seen as lifesaving, especially during the cold winter months, they can have a deteriorating effect on the mental and physical health of those that are housed there. At least in the neighboring canton of Vaud (I can’t speak for Geneva as I don’t know enough about the conditions there):

50-60 migrants sleep together in collective dormitories without windows and with limited privacy. They have to leave their bunker every day at 10am and only return in the evening. The average length of stay varies from a few months to a year.

How can we argue that bunkers are better than the refugee camps we find elsewhere in the world? I salute the Swiss government’s efforts to find some housing for the homeless and asylum seekers but I do think it can do better. Segregation and isolation are not the answer.

Back to Place Neuve: in the center of the plaza, surrounding an equestrian statue, was a sizable group of people holding up picket signs and banners that read NO PRISONS FOR MIGRANTS and FERMEZ LES BUNKERS (Close The Bunkers) like in the photo below.

Source: Tribune de Genève
Source: Tribune de Genève

As I sat looking on from the tram window, I remembered the first instance where I heard of this bunker business. A few of the “Stop Bunkers” members (the collective that organized the protest) came to a film screening and debate focused on the mass influx of migrants and refugees showing up on the shores of southern Europe, held at the Graduate Institute a month or so ago. Guisi Nicolini, the mayor of Lampedusa, Italy, was supposed to be there for the debate but unfortunately had to ‘cancel’ at the last minute. Go figure.

During the discussion, two “Stop Bunkers” members stood up and asked for UNHCR and everyone else in the room to reason with the Swiss government so that they would close the bunkers and find more dignified housing for asylum seekers.

It would’ve been interesting to hear the mayor of Lampedusa’s perspective alongside UNHCR’s European Bureau Director, Vincent Cochetel, and that of Inmaculada Arnaez, FRONTEX’s first ever Fundamental Rights Officer, who attended via Skype to comment on the situation and FRONTEX’s response since replacing Italy’s search and rescue operation Mare Nostrum, a different matter but still closely related to the bunker issue.

Those against switching from Mare Nostrum to FRONTEX argued that it would put thousands more at risk, something that has proven to be true. In 2014 alone, 3,072 migrants* died trying to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe in search of a better life.

Europe Passes the Buck

In a recent article, UNHCR divulged some of the findings from its Mid-Year Trends 2014 report, including the jaw-dropping truth that:

The major refugee-hosting countries in the world are all in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. By comparing the number of refugees to the size of a country’s population or economy, UNHCR’s report puts the contribution made by host nations into context: Relative to the sizes of their populations Lebanon and Jordan host the largest number of refugees, while relative to the sizes of their economies the burdens carried by Ethiopia and Pakistan are greatest.

Likewise, an earlier report showed that “developing countries hosted 86 percent of the world’s refugees, and that nearly half of the refugees under UNHCR’s mandate lived in countries where the GDP per capita was less than USD $5,000.”

For these reasons, it’s crazy to think that Europe ‘cannot’ to take in more refugees. In a study on the burden shared relative to the increasing number of asylum seekers, migration researcher Dietrich Thränhardt found the following in Europe, based on recognition rates for 2012:

Germany granted protection to a total of 17,140 people, followed by Sweden with 9,000, France with 8,645 and Italy with 8,480 positive decisions. Compared to the size of the population, however, the pictures changes again: Norway took one refugee per thousand inhabitants, Sweden 0.9 and Switzerland 0.5. The big member states Germany, France and Italy were far behind with respectively 0.2 and 0.1 refugee per thousand people.

I often read about host countries’ concerns for having refugees and asylum seekers roaming the streets and about how, because of this, their freedom of movement (to lesser or greater extents) is often restricted. Rather than being fixated on viewing the influx as a problem, why aren’t we focusing on the possibilities and solutions? Where in Switzerland, and in the rest of the world, are serious discussions about the integration of these newcomers happening?

In Vaud, they argue that they lack housing and space. Housing, I could perhaps believe, but space? Switzerland has no more space, with its vast expanses and desolate villages? Again, I think we (all) can do better.


For more information on the issue, the Stop Bunkers movement and where the next protests will take place, check out their blog here.


*A note on the conflation of the terms refugee, migrants and asylum seekers: in the media, these are often conflated (I’m looking at you, BBC), but for the purposes of this post when I mention migrants in this context I am referring to those coming to Europe and Switzerland, fleeing conflict or persecution (asylum seekers who are then referred to as refugees once granted refugee status), or a general lack of opportunity (if economic, then migrants) in their home countries. This is a quick and dirty definition but be advised that I am no lawyer.