Update: 04.11.2015

Civil defence shelters as accommodation for asylum seekers: living in a bunker

«I’ve landed in a bunker, as if somebody had pushed me in. I had no choice. I could not live on the street nor could I go abroad, since that would have had a negative effect on my asylum procedure. I just had no possibility to refuse». This anonymous statement was made by a member of the collective «Stop-Bunker». In cooperation with numerous other associations, this migrant organisation is currently fighting so migrants no longer have to live in civil defence shelters in the canton of Geneva.

In summer 1999, Switzerland was faced with an exceptionally high number of requests for asylum due to the Kosovo War. 700 persons (including families) were placed in 12 different bunkers in the canton of Geneva. This situation, which was new at the time, resulted in general dissatisfaction resulting in asylum seekers stepping out into the daylight. As of 9 December 1999, no asylum seekers had to live underground. Today the canton of Geneva and several other cantons including Vaud, Bern, and Lucerne are once again resorting to this measure regularly. All over Switzerland new civil defence shelters have been opened as «emergency accommodation» for asylum seekers. One such bunker opened in St. Gallen at the end of August.

Originally conceived as a temporary and inexpensive interim solution for exceptional situations, the housing of asylum seekers in civil defence shelters has turned into a widespread practice. In some Swiss towns this practice has become commonly accepted, for example in the Hochfeld quarter, Bern. The local population, politicians, and experts have again started protesting against the inhumane conditions in these accommodations. Besides «Stop-Bunker» organistions, in German-speaking Switzerland, such as «Bleiberecht» in Bern have also fought vehemently for an end to this practice. Some cantons, such as Jura, openly oppose these measures.

The legal basis

In 2013, the Federal Supreme Court assessed the underground housing of asylum seekers and decided it was acceptable as long as certain conditions were fulfilled. The Court rejected the complaint of asylum seeker ’S.’ who was waiting to be sent back to Italy and had unsuccessfully requested that the canton of Vaud office for the housing of asylum seekers moved him from a civil defence shelter to a different type of housing. S. argued that the living conditions in the civil defence shelter reminded him of the inhumane and traumatic detention conditions in his home country. The Federal Supreme Court on the other hand ruled that the living conditions did not violate human dignity or the right to emergency assistance according to Art. 7 and Art. 12 of the Federal Constitution. Furthermore, the court decided that Art.3 of the European Convention on Human Rights was not being violated.

It is important to note that in the canton of Vaud there is a legal basis for this practice, which was approved by the Federal Supreme Court. The law states that in principle, asylum seekers should be housed in registration centres or in flats, but that in emergency cases with great, unexpected numbers of asylum seekers civil defence shelters may be used to accommodate them in the short term.

Right to adequate housing

This opinion is contradicted by several international treaties and documents regarding the housing of asylum seekers. Art. 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (UN Covenant I), which was ratified by Switzerland, includes a right to adequate housing. But up to now Switzerland has refused to accept social rights before the courts (non-enforceability) where it is impossible to take advantage of this law in practice (cf. article in German on this topic). In addition, the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families guarantees some protection for migrants in this area. But this convention has not been ratified by Switzerland, and is not likely to be in the near future. The revised social charter of the Council of Europe which includes a right to housing (Art.31) has not been ratified either.

Length of stay is decisive

The Federal Supreme Court’s ruling that the housing of S. in the canton of Vaud civil defence shelter is legal does not forcibly mean that the current practice is always legal and humane. The Court emphasises that to be in violation of Art. 3 ECHR a certain treatment needs to go beyond a «minimum level». «This level depends on a number of different issues, such as the overall view of the measures taken, on the conditions, the type and the duration of this treatment but also on its physical and mental effects on the persons affected as well as in certain cases on sex, age and health».

The average length of stay of an asylum seeker in a Geneva civil defence shelter is six months, but in some cases it can extend to one and a half years. The length of stay in other cantons is reportedly shorter. For example, the canton of St. Gallen migration office is planning to limit the stay in such locations to three months. But according to the National Commission for the Prevention of Torture (NCPT), barracks and civil defence shelter are only appropriate for shorter stays. In its 2013 report the Commission mentions a maximum duration of stay of three weeks. The bad quality of air in underground military facilities is particularly problematic during longer stays.

Healthcare professionals argue along the same lines. The Tribune de Genève newspaper quoted a psychologist on the matter: «Disappearing underground, not being able to cook, having to sleep with the lights on or being exposed to noise and having very little space to oneself. There are a lot of things that seem minor but have enormous repercussions over longer periods of time. You lose your bearings, lose the rhythm of night and day and the relation to life as a whole». Even the two responsible organisations in the cantons of Geneva and Vaud admit that the civil defence shelters are an inhumane solution.

In some cantons, particularly in French-speaking Switzerland, members of parliament have forced legislators to address the topic. In 2009, National Councillor Andy Tschümperlin launched a motion at the Federal Council in which he called for a general ban on the placement of asylum seekers in underground civil defence shelters. The motion seeks «to define minimum standards on the lodging of asylum seekers in the cantons (…) which ensure that asylum seekers are not lodged in civil defence shelters without direct daylight over a longer period of time». In its response, the Federal Council took the position that the Confederation does not have the authority to tell the cantons how they should accomodate asylum seekers.

How regularly can an unexpected emergency occur?

The media and the public think that the flow of refugees continues without interruption and that all cantonal asylum centres are overcrowded. Federal Councillor Ueli Maurer also added to this discourse by declaring that within a very short period of time 50,000 places could be made available in civil defence shelters. Apparently he forgot that the present asylum statistics – compared to 1999 – do not represent an emergency situation but a norm.

Prior to opening civil defence shelters as asylum centres, cantonal authorities frequently stated that the current situation is an emergency situation. When the cantons of Bern and Lucerne lodged asylum seekers in civil defence shelters in recent years, they always explain it be referring to emergency law. In the summers of both 2014 and 2015, the canton of Bern forced its communes to open up their civil defence shelters to asylum seekers. The canton of Bern Head of the Department of Police emphasised that it was «a completely normal measure, provided for by the cantonal Civil Protection and Civil Defence Act for emergency situations». Emergency situations according to Art. 2, Para. 1 of the act are defined as «unexpected events or disturbances of public order and safety, or social emergencies that cannot be dealt with using measures which are intended for a successful normal operation». Four of the five asylum centres operated by ORS in the canton of Bern today are «emergency» underground civil defence shelters.

The canton of Lucerne Head of the Department of Social Affairs, too, points out that «the canton of Lucerne had to resort to emergency law in order to provide underground civil defence shelters for asylum seekers». In doing so the canton referred to Art. 2, Para. 3 of the Civil Protection and Civil Defence Act: «Emergencies are situations that arise from a social development or a technical event and cannot be handled using ordinary procedures because they overwhelm the personal and material resources of the community affected».

Comment by humanrights.ch

The question is whether or not the present situation really reflects the conditions defined in the various cantonal acts. Can it really be called an «unexpectedly big number» or a «surprising, immediate event» considering the fact that the number of requests for asylum in 2014 (23,765) are significantly less than those in 1999 (46,068)? Isn’t the war in Syria and the situation in Eritrea – the countries of origin of most of the asylum seekers in Switzerland – in truth long-time conflicts that are well-known to Switzerland? Is the present situation really so surprising and immediate that it cannot be dealt with using «standard procedures»? And is it acceptable to resort to emergency law for years?

NGOs believe the problem the lack of preparation for a situation that was foreseeable. This initial situation has arisen not least because of former Head of the Federal Department of Justice and Police Christoph Blocher who refused in 2006 to let cantons create «reserves» with regard to lodging for asylum seekers. The cantons are now under great pressure as many asylum centres have been closed down and only a few have been opened. In this context the cantons now talking of an emergency situation, where ordinary procedures are avoided and where hundreds of persons do not receive adequate accommodation.

BIn doing so, the Confederation and the cantons are allowing the health of asylum seekers they should be looking after and whose health has already suffered because of the circumstances of their flight to decrease even more. Political commitment is clearly lacking to improve the refugees’ situation. In Switzerland asylum seekers stay for months in lodging that would be regarded as insufficient and illegal for all other groups of persons after a few weeks. They are a vulnerable minority whose rights are disregarded not least because there are too few persons standing up for them.

Unfortunately, it seems Switzerland officially attaches very little importance to social human rights. For years NGOs have been asking for social rights to be implemented the same way every other law is implemented. But the Federal Council and the Federal Supreme Court refuse to consider social rights as more than programmatic targets that can be withheld from certain groups at the discretion of those in power. This leads to intolerable developments, particularly if cantons are not challenged for applying emergency law without any existing state of emergency.

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