Jan 8, 2000

report: "Police Smash School for Undocumented Migrants"

The Zurich police have raided and demolished an autonomously run school where undocumented migrants held language classes. The raid came as the Swiss government admitted that its harsh treatment of undocumented asylum-seekers has partly failed, and following an announcement that it is again planning a revision of federal asylum law.

Several police officers, half of them in riot gear, stormed the Autonomous School Zurich (ASZ) Thursday. After chasing away the squatters and holding off protesting supporters with pepper spray, officers started confiscating teaching materials and technical utilities. The police partly demolished the single-storey building and removed its windows, leaving it uninhabitable.

The ASZ had started operating at the Allenmoos School on Zurich's outskirts last April, when activists squatted the empty building. The autonomous school operated according to do-it-yourself principles. Anyone could take, or offer, courses for free. As a result, a broad variety of training ranging from open-source computer courses to classes in solar energy fundamentals was available.

The biggest group using the facilities has been the grassroots association 'Education for All' founded by migrants and anti-racist activists to support undocumented migrants. The project is intended to be a form of resistance against exclusion, discrimination and oppression, the association claims.

Teacher Ruedi Salzmann who witnessed the police raid said he was taken aback. "We expected to stay until summer." The Zurich city council had said late November that it tolerated the occupation, and expected it to last until summer 2010, when construction for a new project was due to start. The city council argued that removing the squatters would only lead to further occupations and more costs as buildings would have to be guarded.

Michael Raissig, an activist with the 'Right-to-Stay Collective' says many volunteers have invested a lot of time and energy in running the project. "It's a hard blow for us that all we've built up is demolished within a few hours and without prior warning."

Switzerland is estimated to host 100,000 to 200,000 so-called 'sans- papiers', undocumented migrants. Over the past few years, the country with a population of almost eight million has repeatedly tightened its asylum policy. In 2009, approximately 16,000 people applied for asylum in Switzerland, while about 5,000 asylum-seekers either 'voluntarily' left the country or were deported.

In September 2006, a harsh revision of the asylum law was accepted by 68 percent of voters. The revision meant asylum claims would only be looked into if the requesting person presented valid identification papers such as a passport. Some migrants don't bring identity papers with them; others who fled oppression were never issued papers by their authorities for political reasons.

In late December, the Swiss Federal Office for Migration came up with new proposals to "facilitate" the current asylum regime. It stated that certain measures such as the non-admission decision had failed to increase the number of asylums seekers properly declaring their identity, as in 2009 only 29 percent (compared to 26 percent in 2006) of the asylum seekers actually presented valid documents.

The Federal Office for Migration now plans to consider asylum claims even if the applicant doesn't present proper identity papers. But it intends to cut appeal deadlines for negative decisions by half to 15 days.

Harsh asylum laws have pushed more migrants into illegality, and their asylum claims were either denied in the first place or at a later stage during the regular process. 'Sans-papiers' teacher Ruedi Salzmann says for Swiss authorities asylum seekers "cease to exist as soon as they receive a negative decision. However, the fact is that they're still here." Through the squatted school for undocumented migrants, he said, these people became visible and audible again.

Bah Saidou, himself a 'sans-papiers', was one of the teachers at ASZ. He taught other migrants the basics of German language. He's upset about the police raid and says having no place to teach and learn has dire consequences for himself and his fellows, as learning the German language facilitated their integration into society. "Most of us live in emergency centres and don't have access to education. The autonomous school has for many of us been the only chance to educate."

Zurich police said they carried out the raid due to an illegal and dangerous electric cable installed by the squatters. Mario Cortesi, spokesperson for the city police, said the raid was due to security reasons; a caretaker from a nearby school suffered an electric shock when he checked the wires. The squatters say the city had offered to install a provisional cable but failed to do so, forcing them to help themselves.

"This is just a pretence to get rid of the school and oppose the unwelcome self-initiative by the 'sans-papiers'," says Michael Raissig. His colleague Saidou says if the problem was really only technical, matters could have been discussed together to find a solution. "But simply raiding the school and confiscating all our material isn't a solution."

Raissig says their project isn't dead. Teacher Salzmann says 'Education for All' is discussing future steps and that there's a strong consensus to continue. "We'll look for a new place and are ready to hold classes in public squares or facilities."

This report was written by Ray Smith and was published here by IPS Inter Press Service.