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Waiting For Asylum

by Alexis McGivern
June 25, 2019

Alexis has been championing low-plastic living since 2013. She previously worked on plastic pollution policy solutions for the International Union for Conservation of Nature and is currently conducting research with the Plastic Pollution Emissions Working Group. 

In the summer of 2015, the world was inundated with images of the refugee crisis: men, women and children of all ages, with their lives in backpacks and suitcases, making treacherous journeys across boats and closed borders to claim asylum in various European countries.

I was proud when my small town of 2,000 people outside of Geneva, Switzerland, said we would be welcoming 50 asylum seekers, all young men between 18 and 30 years old, predominantly from Afghanistan, Iraq and Eritrea. A volunteer association was quickly formed, with a group of dedicated members of the community welcoming our new neighbours in ways we thought would help: warm winter clothes, French lessons, football tournaments to blow off steam and encourage new friendships, cooking exchanges and translation for complicated letters from the asylum office. 

The asylum system in Switzerland, as it appears to be in most countries, seems to be less the actualisation of an international and ethical obligation to open your doors to those who are fleeing persecution and more of a slow, silent and unidirectional war of attrition. The state met the basic needs of migrants: food, shelter and safety. Beyond that, it seemed as though the asylum process was designed to wear its participants down to the point where they willingly accepted to return to their home countries.

The process of waiting for asylum is laden with anxiety at all stages, with multiple months or even years passing between your initial interview, follow-up appointments and the final decision on whether or not you are able to stay in a country that you may have called “home” (or something like it) for up to ten years in some of the worst case scenarios.

This anxiety is compounded by the fact that asylum seekers, under an “N permit” in Switzerland, are not given the right to (legally) work.

This is justified in a number of ways, including common rhetoric such as the fact that refugees would take work away from Swiss citizens or that there is an uncertainty over how long they will be staying in the country. Regardless of the reasons, this restrictive policy results in a highly motivated, often highly skilled subset of the population barred from contributing economically. This policy not only wastes a huge amount of potential, but also creates and compounds individual asylum seekers feelings of a lack of self-worth and agency.

The lack of a right to work played out like this in our small Swiss town: the shelter where the men slept each night (a converted bomb shelter meant for nuclear fallout and certainly not appropriate for long-term usage) closed each day from 9am to 5pm. Without work to pass the time, the only option was to hang around the small (and rather cramped) day centre, complete with one pool table, a few PCs and some bean bags, or to head to the train station, one of the few spots in town with free WiFi where the guys could catch up with their families or watch funny videos, a welcome distraction from the constant, humming anxiety that way playing in the background of their minds: “How long will I be able to stay here? Should I continue to invest in learning French if I might be sent to another country soon? Will my family ever be able to join me here? Will I ever see my family again?”

Early on, we had a comment from a member of our community along the lines of “hey, they´re out of danger - so what are they complaining about if they have to sit around and watch YouTube videos for a few months of their lives?” All of the asylum seekers I worked with were highly self-enterprising individuals: the first to leave amongst their families, they made the lonely and treacherous journey to pave a path for their loved ones to join them as soon as they could. They were aching to work, not only to use and hone the skills they brought with them, but also out of a deep sense of loyalty to Switzerland for being the country that took them in. I had many conversations in which many men expressed frustration that they were “draining government resources”, stating that they were deeply uncomfortable with having to be in the care of the state for the first time in their lives.

Last year, Mamadou Gassama, a 22-year old Malian refugee, scaled a building to save a child who was dangling from the fourth floor of a Parisian flat. His heroic act was rewarded with a fast-track to French residency and citizenship and a position with the city’s fire and emergency services. Why should refugees need to commit superhuman acts of heroism in order to deserve the right to safe, fair and dignified work?

We are soon coming up on the four-year anniversary of their arrival to Switzerland. For some men, they´ve had the chance to tearfully tell their family the good news: their asylum request has been granted, they can stay in Switzerland. They´ve found apprenticeships, jobs, some of them have even chosen to go back to school (in French, no less!). For those who remain in limbo, waiting with baited breath for the letter from the asylum office that could change their life forever or see their asylum request rejected and their lives thrown into flux once again, not working is simply no longer an option. Though the government gives a monthly stipend, it is not enough to cover a normal, fulfilling life in (extremely expensive) Switzerland. Many of them have transitioned into taking under the table work, sometimes being exploited to work far longer hours than is legal under threat of reporting them to the asylum office. Some men are underutilising their skills in a big way, like Abdul*, an Afghan refugee who worked as a translator for the American army during their occupation and was one of thousands left behind and in danger by an extremely restrictive visa process to enter the United States. He now picks up catering jobs, cooking Afghan food for parties and festivals in and around the Geneva area. 

The ability to work can do wonders for the sense of self-worth, mental health and integration of refugees into their new communities. For the state, allowing asylum seekers to work would not only ease economic pressure, but would also promote integration among new communities and would employ the unique and varied skillsets of their new residents. If nothing else, work would also serve as a helpful distraction during an extremely difficult time of processing past traumas, panic and worry about the future, and intense loneliness from being so far away from friends and family. Refugees have beaten all odds to make it to their new homes: the least we can do is give them the right to work.

*Name changed.