NYON, Switzerland (AFP) — The heavy metal doors of the old nuclear bunker swing open. Inside it is clean and spacious, but the atmosphere is claustrophobic and sounds echo and bounce off the walls.

The shelter -- tucked away in a supermarket car park at Nyon near Geneva -- became home to around 100 of Switzerland's growing contingent of asylum seekers after the country last year ran out of space to house them.

The shortage followed tough policies enacted under the influence of a right-wing anti-immigrant party in recent years that saw facilities to house asylum seekers drastically cut back.

With accommodation for just 11,000 asylum seekers and faced with 17,000 arrivals in 2008, double the 2007 figure, Switzerland turned to its network of disused nuclear shelters.

At Nyon, an inconspicuous slope leads from the supermarket car park to the shelter which was built during the Cold War years.

Inside there are dormitories, two television rooms and a dining hall where the asylum seekers are served breakfast, a sandwich for lunch and a hot meal in the evening.

For some, the atmosphere is oppressive. "It is inhumane to live underground. We lose the sense of time," said one social worker, who spends much of her day there.

"Some refugees fail to understand and feel like they are being punished," she added.

Ahmed, a Somali who arrived last December, points to a man curled up in a corner murmuring to himself.

"We live in solitude, worries, it's very hard... Some become depressed," he said.

The asylum seekers are free to leave the shelter, although with an allowance of six Swiss francs a day (five dollars), there is little opportunity to do much more than hang around the neighbourhood or play table football at a nearby leisure hall.

For others, however, living in the bunker is the least of their worries.

What they fear most is being repatriated, or being sent back to Italy, their first port of call in Europe.

Under the Dublin Convention, applicants are returned to the signatory state in which they lodged their first application for asylum.

A dozen Eritreans, who fled because they did not want to serve in their country's army, told AFP that if they were returned to Italy they would try to enter Switzerland again.

In Italy, "there is no shelter, no food, we had to live in the streets where people are racist," said Nam, an Eritrean in his thirties.

Another, Salih, agreed. "We will come back to Switzerland as many times as it takes because there is no way we will stay in Italy. We have so many problems, the Swiss authorities should take them into account."

But Switzerland has taken a harder line in the past two years.

It implemented new rules in January 2008 requiring asylum seekers to provide identification documents within 48 hours of their arrival, failing which their applications would not be considered and they would be expelled.

Critics say the requirement was designed to expel a maximum number of applicants, since many would have fled their home countries without identification or would have had their papers taken by smugglers.

New proposals have also been tabled to reject draft dodgers, a policy that would cut Eritrean approvals since many have fled the draft.

The government is also looking at banning marriages between rejected asylum seekers and Swiss citizens, to prevent marriages from being used to obtain residency.

For human rights groups such as the Swiss Observatory for the Right of Asylum Seekers and Foreigners, Bern's move is pushing asylum seekers to "greater precariousness and marks an attack against human dignity.

"The very foundation of asylum applications has been called into question," said lawyer Elise Schubs.

Unaware of the government's shift in policy, Nam remains full of hope. "I expect that the Swiss government will accept my application. We have had hard times in our country," he said.

Source:  AFP