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Swiss Media obsession with Eritrea and Eritreans

With just a little over a week's notice, more than 8,000 Eritreans rallied in Geneva, Switzerland against the unjust and illegal UN sanctions & the politically motivated Commission of Inquiry report on Eritrea. (Photo Credit: Young PFDJ)

By Tibeb Hager

Just landed at Geneva International Airport. Oddly enough my first feeling was: take the first flight back home. People seem stressed, rushing to go to work, no one is talking to each other, headphones on, and everyone is on his/her latest Smartphone. The children playgrounds are empty, kids are confined at home playing with their latest videogames, elderly are lonely as ever. So, this is what we call development? Wealth?

Media is ubiquitous of course. The multitude banners; advertisements pushing you to buy more and more items; making you feel like you need them. Yes, the media seems to control the society’s mind. Mainstream media have real stranglehold on public opinion and perceptions particularly on foreign news and events; 99% of the general public literally swallow its reports as something accurate and true. Journalists and so called experts and pundits act and pretend as if they have the answers to all the events happening thousands of kilometers of away. Personal weblogs are booming; twitter is the place to share ‘your truth’ which is, then, used by mainstream media programs such as AJStream on Aljazeera among others. The young generation reverts for satisfaction and self-esteem, to social media such as Instagram with the famous ‘selfie’, putting an increase on narcissism, self-security issues and addiction. ‘Welcome to First World issues’, I said to myself.

First day back to Switzerland after a long period and I am already counting the days left before my return to Asmara. People do not understand why am so impatient to go back to Eritrea? Someone just said to me, ‘oh you are Eritrean, I am so sorry for you’. Well… I have always been proud of my origin and seeing some kind of either pity or hate towards me just because I am Eritrean, just got me… somewhat curious. This must come from somewhere.

Actually, walking around the train station area, I see Eritreans or East African young men wandering. They even have a nickname for the place: ‘hotspot’.

As they stand or sit on the floor in areas where free wireless are available. You see them there in groups of roughly twenty, with their Smartphone or tablets chatting or calling home.

Going back to the media, when you wake up, you turn on the radio and you hear about Eritrean refugees, Eritrean asylum seekers and so on… you decide to turn on the TV, the narratives continue on Eritreans but this time with images, videos of migrants embarked on boat, series of provocative and well-chosen images to get through your emotions. You read the newspapers; Eritreans are in the headlines. All political parties seem to have the answers to the situation of asylum seekers, migrants, and refugees.

You remember I told you about the banners for advertisement? Well, you also have a series of banners promoting the different political parties from the Rightwing to the Left. Indeed, federal elections are fast approaching in Switzerland and as every four years, a whole campaign to gain more voices start a year in advance.

This year’s main theme is migration, of course. And, without a doubt, the right wing, anti-immigration Swiss People’s Party (SVP) won Switzerland’s parliamentary election with 29.5% of voters on Sunday, 18 October. This victory to SVP gives it eleven extra seats giving it 65 out of the total 200 seats in the lower house (BBC, 19 Oct. 2015).

The polarized debate is between those who are fed up with the “influx of foreign migrants” and those who feel some kind of pity. The situation in Switzerland is not a unique case. The whole European continent is gripped with the same malaise and the international media are daily talking of refugees and the migrant crisis.

When you look at the media, it seems like there is an invasion of foreigners from Syria to the African continent. Undoubtedly, in some quarters, it is a convenient tool to instill sentiments of fear among the people in order to garner more votes and advance one’s political agenda.

During this short time in Switzerland, I notice how the situation and the atmosphere within the society have changed. Of course, there are those who are completely ignoring it but in general, everyone knows Eritrea. Back in the old days, you had to explain where Eritrea is located in Africa. Not anymore; these are gone times. Unfortunately, the knowledge of the country is portrayed solely in a negative way; both through the distorted prism of the media but also through the false narrative that recent Eritrean asylum seekers have been peddling in the past five years or so, in order to expeditiously get their refugee papers.

Actually, I would like to focus on the issue of integration in Switzerland. On this count, I had an informal and interesting discussion with Mr. Martin Strub, the Swiss Ambassador to the Sudan and Eritrea. He was telling me that it takes about four years for an Eritrean to integrate – meaning to find a job to support himself/herself - in the Swiss society and that this is usually easier for the educated ones.

The corollary of that statement was that Switzerland was spending so much money in the interim for social welfare. From 2008 onwards, Switzerland has introduced, for its own political considerations, new regulations for preferential processing of Eritrean asylum-seekers.

This is also the case with some other European countries. This wrong policy has predictably backfired increasing the social welfare burden that the country has to bear. The fact is anyone from the Horn of Africa and even from Nigeria or Sri Lanka has an incentive to pose as an Eritrean to ensure his/her case will be accepted.

So, countries of Europe have told Eritreans they are welcome to seek asylum but upon arrival, how are Eritreans treated? What hope do they have for their future?

From what I have observed in this visit to Switzerland, this misguided policy is only fueling discontent and resentment among the general public. Supposedly due to ‘lack of space’, the Swiss government opens its underground bunkers to host those waiting for their case to be decided.

This may take weeks, months or even years… So you are living underground, in which a bed and food are provided; nonetheless you are obliged to leave in the morning and coming back in the evening. No wonder why so many are just hanging around in the city looking lost and confused.

Then you have all these types of permits starting from the F permit, the N, B and so on. According to the permit, your future will be decided. The F permit is commonly known as a permit to stay for a certain period of time but does not mean that an asylum seeker was granted asylum. Many are still waiting in limbo for the last 20-25 years with this provisional permit. There are some who are refused entry and live under ‘emergency situation’. They are not given any social welfare and have to live on 6-12 Swiss francs a day in a form of a coupon. Indisputably, this is a very harsh method of “elbowing” people to leave the country.

With the multitude of hidden methods, numerous permits given, which some will allow you to work and others not…How can someone integrate?

The treatment of Eritrean asylum seekers is slightly better than other nationalities. The asylum papers are processed more quickly and the “refugees” are given monthly installments as “pocket money” and housing. But without access to jobs, education and above all learning the working languages, the “refugees” are condemned to perpetual dependency; losing their self-esteem and pride in their prime years.

Leaving under perpetual assistance leads to growing passivity and frustration; with all its negative social consequences.

The passivity we can notice of these young (generally) men needs to be taken seriously. More importantly, in the old days, Switzerland was known for having communities mixed, without neighborhood of only one specific nationality. But in the last few years, asylum seekers are increasingly being confined to specific areas; marginalized from the larger society. This approach is fraught with fueling racism and exclusiveness.

 Migration is not, of course, a new phenomenon. It will continue from all parts of the world as it is natural for people to flock where the “pasture is perceived to be greener”. But migration induced by false promises and/or rooted on wrong premises cannot be healthy and beneficial to the individuals concerned.

The current approach where these “refugees” are wasting their time and dignity - condemned as they are to leave on social welfare handouts - will compromise their future while fomenting hatred and resentment in the local community. High time indeed, for Switzerland and other European countries in the same boat, to revisit their misguided policies which have contributed to create this situation in the first place. 
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Swiss Media obsession with Eritrea and Eritreans Reviewed by Admin on 9:09 AM Rating: 5

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