“We should be helping our own people before giving them handouts,” says Gianpaolo Ferrari, glancing towards the African men clustered around Chiasso’s main square.
The 58-year-old restaurant worker in this small southern Swiss town on the Italian border echoes sentiments held by many here and across Switzerland, where migrants and asylum policies top the concerns of voters ahead of Sunday’s parliamentary elections.
The populist, right-wing, anti-immigration Swiss People’s Party (SVP) looks set to strengthen its position as the country’s largest party, with the latest polls suggesting it enjoys nearly 28 percent support.
That would mark an increase on the 26.6 percent of the vote it won in 2011, and nearly reach its record high of 28.9 percent in 2007.
The party is riding high on fears over Europe’s migrant crisis, which this year has seen the arrival of more than half a million migrants — most of them refugees fleeing violence and persecution in places like Syria.
“SVP is clearly benefitting from the European crisis,” said Andreas Ladner, a political scientist at Lausanne University.
Switzerland has also seen an uptick in arrivals, but far from the large numbers of people moving across borders elsewhere in Europe — just over 3,000 migrants and refugees arrived in the country during the month of September.
– Monopolised debate –
Yet the issue has monopolised the debate in the run-up to the Swiss election, with the latest survey showing nearly half of those questioned thought migration was the most important issue facing the country.
That is particularly true in Chiasso, a town of 8,000 people that has historically served as the main migrant gateway to Switzerland.
Last month the town saw over 1,000 new arrivals, most of them Eritreans.
“We need tighter restrictions on who can get into Switzerland, more border controls,” Ferrari insisted.
The border town in Switzerland’s Italian-speaking Ticino region saw large numbers arrive during the Balkan wars in the 1990s and again during the Arab Spring uprisings, and some here are bracing for a new influx.
“We are in the process of planning for possibly managing thousands of arrivals per day,” Norman Gobbi, head of Ticino’s regional government and member of the populist right-wing Lega dei Ticinesi party told AFP.
Paolo Aliano, a retired mechanic who has been living in Chiasso for 45 years, said there were already too many asylum seekers in the town who he felt were soaking up too many benefits.
“They give them food, a place to sleep and they do nothing in return,” he told AFP, nodding towards the men seated on benches around the main square, quietly chatting, smoking or texting on their mobile phones.
One of them is Maxamud Cumar Adan, a Somali farmer who fled the Shebab Islamists in his country in 2008, and who says the armed men murdered his wife when they came looking for him.
Adan, who is still waiting for a final asylum decision, says he would like nothing more than to work, but that his temporary residence permit does not allow him to seek employment beyond Chiasso, where finding a job has proved difficult.
“It is a long time, seven years looking for a job. It’s hard, I’m feeling bad, but I hope. Still I hope,” he said.
– Lacking job opportunities –
Former Ethiopian government regulator Melekot Woldemichael, who fled his country in 2009 after his anti-corruption work made him some powerful enemies at home, also laments the lacking opportunities to work in Switzerland.
He has not yet obtained a residence permit, meaning he not only must stay in Chiasso but is also barred from working in most fields while waiting for a decision on his asylum application.
“I am a professional, but am only allowed to work as a cleaner, or something like that,” he told AFP.
SVP is, meanwhile, calling for Switzerland’s already strict asylum rules to be tightened further, with the party’s most outspoken member and vice president Christoph Blocher insisting last week on the need to “eliminate the chaos”.
“We have a lot of people coming to Switzerland who are not real refugees… We don’t have room for them,” Blocher said.
According to a poll in August, half of the Swiss would favour closing the country’s borders, at least temporarily, to ward off the expected influx of migrants.
Not everyone agrees though that the migrants pose a problem.
“We have no migrant problem in Switzerland today,” said Fathi Derder, a parliamentarian for the Liberal Party, insisting instead that the country “is facing a dire lack of qualified labour”.
“Instead of thinking about closing our borders, we should be rolling out the red carpet for the people that the Swiss economy so desperately needs,” he told AFP.