Her room in Switzerland resembles a typical Nairobi’s Ngara bedsitter. A nondescript cubicle which she had methodically and skilfully arranged her few belongings to perfection. A small TV, mini-fridge, a microwave and a few other appliances are neatly arranged in her one-room.
In deed, the place resembles a hostel with shared amenities such as toilets, bathrooms and kitchens. The latter closes at 10pm. But despite these hardships, 28-year-old Karen Atieno,who has been in asylum in Switzerland for five years, does not harbour desire to return to Kenya.
Atieno left Kenya for Switzerland in 2007 to visit a friend she had met while working in a hotel in Uganda. After a few days,things did not go well with her guest, a Kenyan, whom she says did not treat her as she expected. Boiling in anger, she requested he books her a return ticket, but the man declined.
This led to a vicious physical confrontation which attracted neighbours’ attention. The police were called and Karen’s friend was forced to book her a flight back to Kenya. When she was ready to travel, Kenya plunged into the infamous 1997 post-election violence. Atieno changed her mind.
She decided to seek asylum in Switzerland rather than return home. When she arrived at one asylum centre, authorities could not believe a Kenyan would seek asylum citing instability as a cause. The authorities had to call Atieno’s relatives in Kenya to ascertain she was a Kenyan.
The first born in a family of five, Atieno 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. “ I felt so much time had elapsed. There was nothing I was coming home to do. Besides, I had already integrated into the Swiss culture,” Karen says. Five years later, with her appeal still rejected, Atieno lives with her nine-month baby 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 license. Karen says life as a refugee is difficult because one is not allowed to be away from home for more than five days without the consent of authorities. “You also survive on a tight budget yet you are not allowed to work,” she says.
In that case, why would Atieno put herself through this stressful lifestyle? “I love this country. It is organised, peaceful and secure,” she says, adding, “ They take good care of me and my baby.” The institution Karen is under, Etablissement Vaudois d’Accueil des Migrants (EVAM) hosts immigrants and provides them with health insurance.
But the privilege Atieno is enjoying is about to come to an end. To protect its borders, the Swiss this year voted in a referendum to tightened asylum laws. The decision comes at a time when refugee applications numbers have soared in more than a decade.
Many Swiss 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. They have to travel to Switzerland to apply for asylum.The referendum recommended building of “special centre” for “unruly” refugees.
With the new laws, asylum seekers’ forced repatriation will be supervised by an independent organisations and will restrict the use of restraints on deportees. Amnesty International and Swiss leaders opposed to the referendum cited disregard to human rights.
They also said new laws weaken the humanitarian tradition of Switzerland. The Swiss government says that for every 332 inhabitants, one is an asylum seeker, a rate 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. There are also 11 Nigerians, 16 Serbians, six Ethiopians, and 13 Eritreans. Other nations represented include Brazil, China, Mongolia, Senegal and Russia.
Atieno says that in the few homes she has been, there are no other Kenyan. 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.
Rejected asylum seekers such as Atieno receive approximately Sh38,000 per month for a single individual and Sh143,000 for a family of four. Atieno says if her appeal is rejected, she will return home to get married to the father of her baby, a Swiss whom she has dated for the past three years