101.7 FM IN GENEVA DAB+, CABLE & SATELLITE ACROSS SWITZERLAND
Tiny jets of water fire from a fountain embedded in one of Chiasso’s central squares. Diverse groups of young men sit casually staring at the ground, then at passers-by, then at each other. Some laugh, some smoke, and according to town vice mayor Roberta Pantani Tettamanti, some have bothered local businesses.
TETTAMANTI: We receive some complaining from people working in Chiasso. Also from banks, as often some asylum seekers in front of their doors. And you can understand that people coming into a bank, maybe they are afraid.
Tettamanti sits in Chiasso’s pink city building, a few blocks from the fountain and bank. A pair of federally funded, private security guards patrol outside, in the shadow of the San Vitale church. Tettamanti says refugees from Lampedusa have disrupted the city.
TETTAMANTI: A couple of times a month you see some fights. They fight between themselves because of drunkenness—this is a big problem with them, because they don’t have to do anything during the day.
Chiasso has always had asylum seekers, for at least 60 years. From Milan, through Como, Chiasso is the first Swiss town on the southern rail line. Police commander Nicolas Poncini says the problem is not refugees in general, or the asylum center, rather the motivations of some of the refugees.
PONCINI: We had waves of Kosovo, for example, a few years ago, but everything went smooth, from a crime point of view of course. Now we have many Nigerian refugees, maybe from two or three years now. Most of them came here very well organized and they have clear goals to deal with dopes and drugs and so.
Poncini says the problems are cyclical: a few months flooded by refugees, a few months without. And he is adamant—he and his 35 officers don’t think all refugees are criminal, or all Nigerians, or all Libyans. But an increase in crime was evident.
PONCINI: This is caused by the second wave of refugees which came this year—this is the north African refugees who came to Chiasso. And, uh, they were very aggressive, and had strange habits. I mean, uh, they don’t care about peeing in the streets, or stealing, or drinking.
A few meters from the steps of San Vitale church sit two black men on a concrete wall. Both are dressed casually—jeans, polo shirts. Both came from North Africa, through Italy, into Switzerland. One of the men, from Nigeria, said poor conditions in Italy pushed him North.
NIGERIAN MAN: They say that they have to help asylum seeker in the land of Europe, but they don’t take proper care for us. As me, I am a young boy, for me, now, I am supposed to focus my life, maybe study in school, thinking about a brighter future to live. But they leave every black man in the street.
The man sitting next to him came through Lampedusa 2 years ago from Libya. He’s been in Chiasso two weeks, waiting for more details on his asylum request. But all he expects to get in Switzerland is time.
LIBYAN MAN: They are don’t giving somebody document. They really spend, give some time; they give us three months, four months to stay. After that they deport us back to Italy. That is just everything. We are just suffering. We need a better life to live.
The men complain of benefits and conditions in Switzerland, but also of racism. They say police often target refugees, and police commander Poncini doesn’t deny it. But, he says, only with probable cause.
PONCINI: We don’t have to see Chiasso as…Tijuana or some (inaudible). We have this refugee center, we have this cyclic problem who comes and goes. We have no, no racist population in Chiasso.
PONCINI: But we have to keep the thing safe, and we don’t want to have people which are coming here already organized to bring crime in Chiasso.
Chiasso has tried implementing fixes of its own, for example starting a refugee worker program, but such things are under federal jurisdiction. Vice Mayor Roberta Pantani Tettamanti says between local, cantonal and federal officials all with different perspectives and duties, its complicated. She says Chiasso’s situation may not have been forgotten in Bern, but perhaps misunderstood.