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Last Updated: Tuesday, 24 August, 2004, 16:50 GMT 17:50 UK
Swiss house migrants in bunker
By Imogen Foulkes
BBC correspondent in Berne

The Swiss canton of Berne has begun housing rejected asylum seekers in an underground army bunker.

view of bunker in Alps
The bunker is surrounded by the majestic Alps
The move follows a decision by Switzerland's federal government to stop paying welfare benefits to people whose claims for asylum have been turned down.

It is now up to the cantons to provide assistance to failed asylum seekers, and in Berne the authorities have come up with the bunker solution.

"The accommodation we provide for refugees is already very basic," said Dora Andres, head of police and immigration policy in Berne. "So for rejected asylum seekers I had to find something of an even lower standard, and that meant it had to be underground."

The bunker is in an isolated spot high in the Alps, 1500 metres above sea level on the Jaun pass. The only clue to its existence is a large concrete door in the mountainside.

Cold War relics

There are many such bunkers in Switzerland, relics of the Cold War which were originally designed as hideouts for the Swiss army in the event of invasion.

Asylum seeker Sharoc from Nepal
Sharoc from Nepal does not know how long he can stay
Now the Jaun Pass bunker has room for up to 100 asylum seekers. The dormitory- style bedrooms sleep 12 people each, there is a kitchen, showers, and a television room. Everything is underground, so none of the rooms gets any natural light.

"Our residents don't get any money," explains caretaker Sonia Wiedmer. "Instead they get $5 a day in vouchers, which they can exchange for basic food items at the bunker's shop."

Sharoc, who is from Nepal, has been at the bunker for more than a week now. His story is fairly typical - bureaucratic delays and loopholes in the Swiss asylum system have allowed him to stay in Switzerland for a very long time.

"I've actually been here 10 years," he explains. "For the first four I worked legally, and then my work permit was withdrawn."

"After that I applied for asylum, and I've been waiting six years for a decision. Now they want me to leave. I don't think that's right."

Delayed decisions

Switzerland currently has more than 40,000 asylum seekers whose claims for refugee status are pending. Many of them, like Sharoc, will spend years waiting for a decision.

migrant at bunker shop
A shop in the bunker provides basic necessities
Natalia from Siberia has also been brought to the bunker. She and her son Stanislav left Russia two years ago hoping to find work in Switzerland.

When that did not work out, they applied for asylum. The Swiss authorities rejected their claim fairly quickly, and now expect them to leave.

"It's hard for me here," Natalia says. "There's no daylight, and the walls of the bunker are damp at night, I'm shivering all night long."

What bothers Natalia most of all are the restrictions placed on her movements. Bunker residents must be inside by curfew time of 2000, and during the day they are allowed only a few steps from the bunker's entrance.

They are forbidden from entering the nearby village of Jaun, where locals claim the presence of asylum seekers might damage the tourist industry.

"We are just a normal family," Natalia says. "We've never done anything wrong and now the Swiss are treating us like criminals. Why are they doing this to us?"

Economic migrants

The answer is that Switzerland, like the rest of western Europe, wants to deter economic migrants, and the authorities here firmly believe Sharoc and Natalia fall into that category.

Asylum seeker Natalia
Natalia is upset by her conditions but sees no future in Russia
"If you come to Switzerland and you are not a genuine refugee you are not welcome here," says Dora Andres. "I want people to know that they risk ending up in a place like this (the bunker) if they do try to come."

The Swiss Refugee Council has condemned the bunker as inhumane, and the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) has criticised the decision to withdraw welfare benefits.

But these concerns have not changed canton Berne's policy, and more failed asylum seekers are being sent to the bunker every day.

The authorities hope conditions there will encourage the asylum seekers to leave Switzerland as soon as possible, but this may not work out as planned. Neither Natalia nor Sharoc, for example, are ready to go home.

"I won't go back to Russia," says Natalia. "I've got absolutely nothing there to go back for."

"I feel as if I've forgotten my own country now," Sharoc says. "I don't even know where my family is."

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