Swiss students: Austrian far- right politician ‘not welcome’

A group of students and professors at the Graduate Institute Geneva (IHEID) has demanded it refuse to host a debate about migration with Austrian far-right presidential candidate Norbert Hofer on the panel, saying it should not “give a platform” to his views.

Swiss students: Austrian far- right politician 'not welcome'
Norbert Hofer is running in Austria's presidential election in December. Photo: Joe Klamar/AFP

The debate, scheduled for Thursday evening on the IHEID campus, is entitled ‘Can Europe’s politicians solve the migration crisis?’ and is organized in association with The Europaeum, an association of ten European universities.

As well as Hofer, the panel will include former president of the EU Commission José Manuel Barroso, the former foreign minister of the Czech Republic, Karel, Prince of Schwarzenburg, and Carol Batchelor, representative of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

Hofer is the presidential candidate for the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), which is known for its anti-immigration stance.

He was narrowly defeated in Austria’s presidential election in May. But the result was annulled over claims of electoral fraud and irregularities in the vote, and Hofer is standing again in the re-run, due to take place on December 4th.

If he wins, he will be Europe’s first far-right head of state since 1945.

In an open letter to the IHEID, 110 students, alumni and professors pointed out that Hofer is associated with “numerous far-right groups and their causes, including Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and homophobia”.

Inviting him to speak at the institute “gives credence to his opinions and will serve to mainstream and normalize xenophobic and racist views,” it said.

Hofer’s presence at the IHEID would be “at odds with the very values of our institution,” said the students, calling for it to “set an example and not act as a platform for those responsible for promulgating opinions that have very real negative impacts on the lives of minorities in the European continent”.

The objectors also expressed their concern that, at the time of writing the letter, no-one with expertise on migration was due to sit on the panel. However the UNHCR’s Batchelor confirmed her presence on Monday.

Speaking to the Tribune de Genève, Philippe Burrin, director of the IHEID, agreed that “what Mr Hofer represents is in contradiction with the values of the institute”.

However he recognized the growth of populist parties in Europe and said the debate was a chance to discuss the questions that arise from their immigration policy.

“To cancel this round table reinforces the idea of a plot led by the establishment. It’s better to listen to Norbert Hofer and contradict him,” he said.

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Amnesty decries Swiss asylum centre abuse

Minors and adults housed in Swiss asylum centres have faced serious abuses at the hands of security staff, including beatings and chokeholds, Amnesty International warned Wednesday.

Amnesty decries Swiss asylum centre abuse
An asylum centre in the Alpine village of Realp, Central Switzerland. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

In a report, the rights organisation’s Swiss chapter detailed “alarming abuse” in the country’s federal asylum centres, and called for urgent government action to address the problem.

The report documents a range of abuses by staff of the private security companies Securitas and Protectas, which had been contracted by Switzerland’s State Secretariat for Migration (SEM).

Amnesty said it had spoken with 14 asylum seekers, including two minors, who reported having faced abuse from the security officers between January 2020 and April 2021, along with 18 current and former security agents and other witnesses.

The asylum seekers described being beaten and physically restrained to the point where they could not breathe or fainted.

Some also complained about trouble breathing after being doused with pepper spray, and being locked in a metal container in freezing temperatures.

The report found that six of the alleged victims had to be hospitalised, while two said they had been denied the medical assistance they had requested.

“In addition to complaints about physical pain, mistreatment and punitive treatment, these people also voiced concerns about (security staff’s) hostility, prejudice and racism towards the residents,” said Alice Giraudel, a lawyer with Amnesty’s Swiss branch.

Such attitudes had seemed to target people of North African origin in particular, she said. Some of the abuse cases, Amnesty said, “could amount to torture”, and would thus violate Switzerland’s obligations under international law.

In a media statement, the SEM said it took the criticism “very seriously”, but rejected the suggestion that abuses were taking place in a systematic manner in federal asylum centres.

It stressed that there was no acceptance for “disproportionate constraint” of asylum seekers, and vowed to “sanction all improper behaviour.”

Giraudel hailed that the SEM had recently announced it would open an external probe into isolated abuse allegations.

But, she insisted, the situation was alarming and required the government to stop looking at allegations of abuse as the work of “a few bad apples”.