28 January 2008 – As tensions in the Serbian province of Kosovo rise, Swiss cantons prepare for a possible flood of asylum seekers.

Swiss cantons are bracing for an influx of immigrants from Kosovo, given the potentially explosive situation developing in that province of Serbia. Polls suggest ultra-nationalist candidate Tomislav Nikolic is likely to win the Serbian presidential election in the second round of voting next Sunday. Nikolic has proclaimed that Kosovo is the “cradle” of Serbia and will never be separated from the homeland. Meanwhile, Hashim Thaci, the president of Kosovo, has indicated the province, whose population is largely Albanian, is ready to declare independence.

Past wars in the region have led to a major exodus of people, something that Swiss newspapers have highlighted. Following the breakup of the former Yugoslavia (of which Serbia and Kosovo were a part) in 1991, 200,000 refugees came to Switzerland over several years. But cantonal officials say they are not as well prepared to accommodate another flood of asylum seekers this time round. Karin Keller-Sutter, vice-president of the conference of cantonal justice and police directors, said welcome centers for refugees have been closed.

And at the initiative of Christoph Blocher, the right-wing former federal justice minister, the cantons for money-saving reasons have dismantled their infrastructure for assistance, she told the Sonntags-Blick newspaper. For now, the cantons are counting on the 340,000 people originally from the Balkans now living in Switzerland to help some of the expected refugees.

Army barracks will offer the only other major way to accommodate them. In a related report, the federal immigration department said 40 to 70 percent of asylum seekers in Switzerland rely on smugglers to get them across the border. They pay up to SFr75,000 for such services, said department spokesman Brigitte Hauser. Of 10,000 requests to be admitted to the country from such immigrants each year, only 500 are presented at the border, she said.

Source: Tribune de Genève