“We had to ensure that asylum procedures continued.”

The pandemic presented huge challenges in the field of asylum. David Keller, Head of Crisis Unit Asylum, reflects on the events of the past year.

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What challenges did the federal asylum centres face at the outbreak of the pandemic?

“One of the challenges was complying with the precautionary measures issued by the FOPH: social distancing in a centre that accommodates 200 to 300 people is quite difficult. Implementing the hygiene rules presented a further challenge. Also, the staff were fearful at the start of the pandemic, but we had to keep the centres going – working from home was simply not an option.”

How did you prepare for the real-case scenario?

“We recognised the gravity of the situation at the operative level early on. That gave us more time to adapt to the situation. We established a crisis communication team and were in contact with experts from the FOPH. It was clear from the beginning that we would have to continue the asylum proceedings for reasons of space, otherwise the asylum centres would start filling up and social distancing would be even more difficult to enforce.”

What measures were implemented in the centres and were they the same for all sites?

“An operative task force was tasked with defining uniform measures for all federal centres: the measures included spacing between beds, floor marking in the dining halls, establishing quarantine facilities, etc. But conditions differ from centre to centre and the measures had to be adapted to the respective facility.”

How did the staff in your division cope with the situation?

“I have to pay my staff a great compliment: their achievements of the past year are tremendous. There were various phases in dealing with the pandemic. It was quite difficult for everyone at the beginning because we knew nothing about the virus and many staff members therefore wanted to work from home. However, it soon became clear that we had a duty towards the asylum seekers and working from home was not an option. I was very impressed by the staff’s solidarity.”

How did the asylum seekers react to the corona measures?

“In general, very well. Few complained about the precautionary measures, and the compulsory wearing of masks during the second wave was also accepted without much fuss – I expected more resistance. One of the reasons that the measures were so well received, I think, was that people were aware of the dangers of the virus.”

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What did you find particularly challenging?

“One of the most important things during a crisis is to react swiftly. There is little time to consider and compare every possible option – procrastination can be disastrous. In the course of the pandemic, I have often had to anticipate events and go with my gut instinct. The situation was made more difficult at times by the constant changing of the rules. But throughout I have tried to stay calm and positive towards my staff and the asylum seekers.”

Does any particular moment or event stick in your mind?

“The first two weeks of April 2020 will stay with me for a long time to come. The asylum centre in the former Ziegler hospital was closed and technical renovation of the building – rearranging the rooms, constructing Plexiglas partitions, etc. – was under way. All the offices were empty and I was the only person in the building – holding the fort, as it were. One gloomy morning I was momentarily overcome by a fear of the virus and had to pause for a moment. Then, encouraging myself to remain optimistic, I continued with my work.”

What is your conclusion on the pandemic so far, and what would you have done differently in hindsight?

“That we chose to communicate openly and transparently paid off and I would make the same decision again. We could perhaps have been more pro-active with respect to staff members’ need for more social interaction. One thing we should focus on more in a future crisis, in my opinion, is the exit strategy. Managing a challenging situation is one thing, but it is another thing to have a clear strategy for a gradual return to normality.”