Sunday, 11 October 2015

Rant about private bathrooms, law clinics, mittens and senior diapers

Some weeks ago F and I were discussing refugees and asylum seekers in Europe for the umpteenth time and comparing stories of all the amazing initiatives that we had heard about it.  One distinct feature of the discussion was, however, the fact that it concerned other countries.  People were coming together with great ideas and open hearts to help in Germany,  Finland, even bizarrely anti-refugee England and, as I mentioned in my last rant, tiny Iceland.

Why was nothing happening in Switzerland?  We are not the least connected or informed members of the Swiss society, why were we not being bombarded with initiatives that we could join and where we could do our little bit?

Starting to dig a little deeper we discovered that the problem was not the inactivity of the Swiss civil society, but the lack of “crisis”.  When one looks at a map, one would be forgiven for assuming that asylum seekers arriving across the Mediterranean to Italy will venture up the country and arrive in Switzerland, to the extent that they cannot be handled by the Italians (which they cannot, as a result of the sheer numbers).  In fact they are not.  They do a detour into Austria with the aim of reaching Germany (or Sweden or other countries further north).  They are not interested in Switzerland.

As bizarre as this was, it meant that F was not the only one who ended up carrying his old winter jacket and other second-hand clothes still in good condition to Germany on a visit, as they were needed there, not here. 

We were not deterred, though.  The Swiss know that the tide may turn, so while the immediate situation is not critical, a lot of work can still be done.  We found, for example, an initiative by OSAR whereby refugees (ie asylum seekers who have been granted refugee status and the right to stay) can be housed with Swiss families.  As we have a guest room / home office in our flat, we thought we'd volunteer, but were told we don't qualify as we cannot provide a private bathroom for our potential refugee housemate. 

“Only in Switzerland” is all I can say.  Given the rent level here, we are super-privileged by having a second bedroom.  I don't know ANYONE who has their own bathroom – let alone a spare one.  But apparently refugees can expect better from the Swiss society!

So we turned elsewhere and thought that maybe there is an area where we DO qualify and have something to provide that maybe everyone cannot.  Obviously enough that would mean law for both of us.  As the self-appointed pro bono officer of my office I am currently investigating with a few colleagues the possibilities that exist for our firm to help in providing legal advice and assistance to asylum seekers.  We already had our first mandate approved by management (obtaining export licenses for unused medication to be sent to a clinic for refugees in Greece), which was exciting.  F, for his part, is looking at setting up a clinic that would combine the language skills and international law expertise of the students at his Institute with the Swiss administrative law expertise of Geneva University.

The lesson we learned from this – whether our ideas ever come to fruition or not – is that there is a way for everyone (who wants to) to help in a way that feels right for them.  For us it means harnessing our legal and organisational skills. For those with a spare room (and bathroom...) it may mean offering that to house asylum seekers, but only if you're comfortable sharing your living space, with I recognise not everyone is.  For those with a needle addiction (like my mum), it may mean knitting beanies, scarves and mittens in preparation for winter.  And so on.

Nyt has reported that at least in Finland there is a surge in people volunteering IN GENERAL, not just for helping asylum seekers, which is great.  Those that grumble that we should not be helping all these foreigners when there are Finnish senior citizens stuck in their wet diapers in badly staffed care homes should shut up and volunteer to go on diaper duty at their local care home.  And of course there are those who think we should help Syrians and Iraqis in the refugee camps and not let them come here.  Well, please do.  I have ranted previously about the many organisations that are active in the camps and could undoubtedly do with more donations.

Not only are there absolutely no excuses not to get involved, this can be fun if done in a way that plays to each of our strengths.  I'd love to hear in the comments what you have gotten up to!

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